How to Give Christmas Gifts Without Overspending

Reduce the stress of the holidays by solving the most common holiday spending problems.


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If every holiday season's approach fills you with money anxiety, identify the source of your problem and confront it head on with these commonsense tactics.

Problem: I spend too much. Solution: Establish a spending plan.

Make a list of people you want to give gifts to and list a potential gift, with the maximum amount you'd spend on it. If the total takes your breath away, eliminate a few names or lower some of the spending limits. Consider inexpensive gift alternatives for neighbors and coworkers. Talk with extended family members about drawing names and agreeing on price ranges. Bring your list when you shop and don't allow yourself to stray from the spending limits.

Problem: My kids get greedy. Solution: Set limits in advance.

It's normal for children to want things, especially when advertisers pull out all the stops. Tell your kids you appreciate those feelings. Then talk about the difference between wanting and needing.

The year-round refrigerator wish list is a great way to help kids control the "wants," says Jerry Mason, a family financial planning and counseling professor at Texas Tech University. "If they say, 'Gee, Mommy, I gotta have it,' you say, 'Let's put it on the wish list,' " he explains. As Christmas (or the birthday) approaches, go over the list with your child to help prioritize the items. "By then, he won't want two-thirds of what's on there," Mason says. Your child will learn about the transitory nature of the "gimme" impulse, and you'll be able to give fewer things, and items that mean more.

Problem: I don't want to go into debt. Solution: Give thoughtful, personalized gifts.

Concentrate on what would be meaningful or useful. In some cases, you may already have just the thing -- perhaps this is the year to give your daughter that necklace that your mother gave you many years ago. Or you can give a service, such as a night of baby-sitting, or a morning of driveway shoveling.

Problem: Grandma has everything she wants. Solution: Give the gift of yourself.

Perhaps Grandma would find a day's outing with you more meaningful than another knickknack. Promise her a good time and see how happy that makes her.

Problem: Despite gifts, something's missing. Solution: Give gifts that reflect your values.

Adopt a family with fewer resources than yours. Serve turkey at a soup kitchen. Invite someone who may be alone to join your family celebration. Have your kids help you distribute toys to needy children.

The more energy and thought you devote to touching the lives of people you love, the more likely you are to have moments and memories that have nothing to do with spending, and everything to do with giving.

Shop Smart

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  • Start early. That way you can comparison shop and take advantage of preholiday sales
  • Don't rush. When you're stressed, you're more likely to buy silly things and pay too much for them. Block out shopping time -- ideally early in the day or on a Monday or Tuesday -- to avoid the crowds.
  • Take a set amount of cash. When it's gone, stop buying.
  • When you're done, go home! The less you subject yourself to the store's seductive splendor, the fewer unnecessary things you'll buy. Better yet, never leave home -- shop by catalog or online.
  • Watch the weather. During winter storms, stores sometimes slash prices to lure shoppers.
  • Load up on seasonal grocery bargains. Baking supplies, for example, are often on sale during the holidays.
  • Shop after the holidays for next year's decorations and cards.

Trim Expenses

  • Make travel arrangements as far in advance as possible and enjoy cheaper tickets and discounted rooms.
  • Ship early. You'll avoid the rush rates. If you're catalog shopping, read the fine print on the order form as shipping fees can vary widely.
  • Make your gifts. Even the arts-and-crafts-impaired can usually deal with baked goods, bottled vinegar, and the like.
  • Entertain for less. Skip costly dinner parties and instead have gatherings that involve guests, such as potlucks, caroling, tree-trimming, or cookie-swapping parties.
  • Send free e-greeting cards. These colorful Internet messages cost you nothing.
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