Christmas Gift Challenge

by Gary Foreman

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"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..." You can tell because everywhere you go someone is trying to sell you something! Stores began decorating weeks ago and the TV commercials are starting to have that Christmas flavor, too. So what's a person to do? Well, you could go 'bah humbug' and hide until January or you could try taking the "Christmas Gift Challenge." What's that? It's a challenge to see if you can spend less than you did last year.

We'll begin with a little motivation. The National Retail Federation (read "the store owners") expect a 3.9% increase from last year and could total as much as $602.1 Billion. And although people think that they'll have the extra credit card bills paid off by the end of February, it actually takes them about six months according to the American Bankers Association.

OK, now that we've got your attention let's see what we can do to help create a happy, yet realistic, Christmas and Chanukah. The first thing to recognize is that there's more to holiday spending than presents. There are decorations, clothes, parties and travel. Oh, and don't forget about cards, shipping costs for presents and phone calls.

Your first step is to figure out how much you spent last year. Go back and look at credit card bills and your check register to get the answer. Once you've found your credit card bills and check register it shouldn't take you more than 30 minutes to total up the expenses

Next, you'll want to put together a plan that will help control this year's spending. Begin by listing the items that aren't related to gifts. Everyone will have different priorities. Some folks spend a lot on holiday phone calls. Others throw big parties. Take a look at where your big expenses are and think creatively about cost reductions. Perhaps this year when people ask what they can bring to your party you suggest an item of food or drink instead of telling them 'nothing'. Try to keep yourself from being limited by what you did in the past. Just because you always do things a certain way doesn't mean that you can't try something new this year.

Once that's complete we'll move on to gifts. Begin by recognizing that you shouldn't spend hundreds of dollars without a plan. Buying gifts on impulse is foolish. And you're more likely to by gifts that aren't appreciated by the person receiving them.

Start by imitating Santa Claus. Make a list of everyone you'll be buying a gift for. Include that uncle that you'd like to forget, the office grab bag and even that gift that you keep under the tree just in case someone unexpected shows up and you don't have a present for them.

Then consider how much you think you will need to spend on each person. Write it down next to their name. Total that amount. How does it compare to what you can afford? If it's too much you'll need to reduce some entries. That's the hard part. But it's easier to make a decision now. Once you've overspent on Aunt Edna it's going to be very hard to shortchange your sweetheart.

Once you have your spending targets in place it's time to get out the catalogues and do some window shopping. Consider everyone on the list and try to think of a couple of gifts that would fit within your spending target. When you come up with a good idea put it on the list. You might want to return to the list more than once over a few days.

Don't forget homemade or personal gifts. And craft skills are often not required. For instance a gift of babysitting coupons for a young mother would certainly be welcome and wouldn't cost you anything but a little time. Recipe collections and framed reprints of old family photos can be nice.

When the list is complete then it's time to start shopping. Just having a complete list should save you some time. A quick glance can tell you whether there's another gift that you might get while you're in a particular store.

And by comparing your actual purchases to your plan you'll avoid a surprise come January. And if smart shopping means that you spent less than you planned you know that you can go over on another gift without blowing the plan.

No matter what you're buying there are a number of things that you can do to reduce costs. The first thing is don't wait until the last minute. When you wait until the end you'll be forced to buy something, anything, no matter what the cost. By starting early you'll have the luxury of doing some price comparisons between stores.

Avoid using store credit cards. They have the highest interest rates. Even if you'll be paying the bills off by February you might as keep your interest expenses down. If you're still carrying a balance this summer it's vital.

If you have access to the internet you'll want to do some comparison shopping online. Even if you don't purchase anything that way it will give you a good idea of what reasonable prices are.

Finally, when you've bought the last gift on your list quit shopping! "Just a little something extra" can quickly ruin a your plan.

There you have it. An organized approach to this year's holiday spending that won't leave you with a credit card hangover in January. Now it's your choice. Are you up to the challenge?

Updated October 2013

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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