The holiday season can be a money pit, if you let it. Things can get out of hand quickly, especially when the spirit of seasonal goodwill strikes. It feels wonderful to give to people we care about and to the less fortunate. We all should do more of that.
However, we also need to be thoughtful about our holiday budget so we don't find ourselves buried in bills at the start of the new year.
There are people out there who claim they always complete all of their holiday shopping before the end of November. However, most of us are still shopping in December, and a significant number of us wait until the very last minute every year. And there are those who just can't stop shopping.
A spending plan will help you avoid stress, heartache and the post-holiday financial blues.
For whatever reason, those are the people who find themselves purchasing items every time they set foot in a store or surf the Web. They often end up spending way more than they can afford because it's usually impulse purchases that crush your bottom line.
No matter what kind of shopper you are, when or where you shop, or which holidays you celebrate, it pays to plan. A spending plan will help you avoid stress, heartache and the post-holiday financial blues.
First, develop a firm holiday spending budget. Make a list of everything you think you'll need to buy during the holiday season. Include decorations, food, entertainment, cards, postage and everyone you plan to give something to without regard to what type of gift you plan to give.
Include everything and everyone you're considering spending money on, regardless of what you're thinking about buying or giving them. Make sure your list includes the people you traditionally tip during the holidays, like your hairdresser, babysitter, newspaper and mail carriers. Add on the donations you'd like to make, including what you plan to give to bell ringers and other charitable requests. You often run into them while shopping during the holidays and give without thinking, so include those costs in your budget.
Then sit back and review your list.
Ask yourself a lot of questions. For instance, do you really need new decorations? Can you make do with what you already have, or could you make some decorations more cheaply than if you bought new? Remember, homemade decorations are often cherished more.
Do you need to mail as many holiday cards as you have in the past? Many people keep up regularly through social media these days and no longer care as much about annual holiday cards.
Are there more people on your list than you can afford to buy for? Are you giving out of habit or because you feel obligated?
Maybe it's time to have a conversation with some of the people on your list. There's a good chance they're also feeling overwhelmed with gift shopping and would welcome the opportunity to cut back. Some families or groups of friends, as they grow, decide to draw names rather than buy for everyone. Others decide to get together to do something fun, like caroling, baking or sledding, and forego gifts altogether. When you present options like these you may be surprised to find people are extremely grateful. They're often feeling as much financial and time pressure as you are.
Once you get your gift list to a manageable size, ask yourself if the people on it really need or want more stuff. A lot of us already have way too much stuff. Would a consumable gift like a special hair conditioner, computer cleaning spray, or drinking water filters make them happier? Some might be thrilled with something you made yourself like homemade relish or cookies, hand-crafted jewelry, personalized gift bags, artwork, poetry, or hand-knit scarves. You might even consider giving gifts that don't cost a thing. Give a gift of your time. Create memories. Gifts of your time will likely be more meaningful than any material gift. You might be delighted to discover how many people would actually prefer your presence to any presents you might give.
Then set a maximum dollar amount to spend on each of the items on your list, and stick to your game plan. It's so easy to get sidetracked. You're online or in a store and see something you love or that you think someone else will love and you buy it, even if you've already purchased something else for that person or purpose.
Keep your shopping list with you whenever or wherever you shop. Check off each item as it's purchased, making sure you didn't go over the maximum amount you planned to spend for each item on the list. Make it a game. Beat your own bottom line.
You might also save a little if you search for coupons or special offers, including free shipping, before purchasing items on your list. There are plenty of deals and bargains out there if you do a little research. Whether you're heading to the local dollar store, a big mall, or shopping in your pajamas on your laptop, it's essential to make time to do that research because some advertised deals aren't any cheaper than regular prices. Do some cost comparisons before spending your hard-earned dollars.
Retailers work especially hard during this time of year to entice shoppers, so be careful. Spending less time in stores and looking at online merchandise will probably leave you with more in the bank. And don't get drawn in by sales. You don't ever save if you're spending.
You also need to keep yourself safe while shopping. If you go directly to stores, bring only the credit cards or cash you'll need on that shopping trip in case you lose your purse or wallet or it's stolen. To further reduce your risk, keep your purse or wallet well hidden or close to your body and lock gifts in your car trunk as soon as possible after purchasing them. If you shop online, make sure you do so only with reputable retailers with secure websites. You might also want to use only one credit card for that purpose.
Finally, start planning now for the 2013 holiday season. You'll be less stressed this time next year.
If you're looking for new ideas to help you live a more cost-effective and healthier lifestyle, Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Eat Smart New York program may be just right for you. Interactive sessions include fun activities and new ideas to help people save money, improve their nutritional status and incorporate exercise into their busy lives. Sessions can be scheduled at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County, and bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502, ext. 217.
Then kick back after you make your holiday spending plan by throwing together an easy, cost-conscious and tasty meal:
6 medium potatoes
6 medium carrots
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 4 breast halves)
1 10 ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 10 ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
2-4 tablespoons instant potato flakes
1. Place potatoes and carrots in a slow cooker.
2. Top with chicken.
3. Combine the soups and garlic powder; pour over chicken.
4. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. To thicken (if desired) stir potato flakes into the gravy and cook 30 minutes longer.
5. Serve over cooked noodles or rice
Yields about 6 servings
Source: Eat Smart New York! Recipe Book
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1/6 recipe; 272 Calories, 55 Calories from Fat, 7g Total Fat, 20.2 percent calories from fat, 2g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 35mg Cholesterol, 718mg Sodium, 37g Total Carbohydrate, 6g Dietary Fiber, 2g Sugars, 17g Protein, 476 percent Vitamin A, 5 percent Calcium, 26 percent Vitamin C, 6 percent Iron (Nutrition facts based on standard recipe using 2 tablespoons instant potato flakes.)