Start Now, Save Later

At the top of my list of most annoying things (up there with a box full of hangers and a stack of unfiled paperwork) sits this: stores that decorate for Christmas before Columbus has even had his day. The colored lights, faux foil icicles and red-velvet Santas summon my inner Scrooge. Christmas? Already? I’m not falling for your trick this time, big-box store. You’re not going to lure me into spending early, thus spending more. Oh, no, no, no. 

This year, I’m going to turn early holiday shopping on its head by using the extra time to find ways to save on my November-through-December purchases by planning for them in advance. 

Christmas? Already?

Christmas? Already?

At the top of my list of most annoying things (up there with a box full of hangers and a stack of unfiled paperwork) sits this: stores that decorate for Christmas before Columbus has even had his day. The colored lights, faux foil icicles and red-velvet Santas summon my inner Scrooge. Christmas? Already? I’m not falling for your trick this time, big-box store. You’re not going to lure me into spending early, thus spending more. Oh, no, no, no.

This year, I’m going to turn early holiday shopping on its head by using the extra time to find ways to save on my November-through-December purchases by planning for them in advance.

Typically, around 10 days before Christmas, you’ll find my Amazon shopping cart at maximum capacity and someone at American Express laughing menacingly at the huge load I just put on my card. How long will it take her to pay that off this time? (Insert evil laugh.)

Nope, this year, I win. No budget-busting surprises. No January credit-card remorse. No last-minute gift buying or Martha Stewart-worthy (read: expensive) entertaining. This year I’ll have it under control because this year, I’m starting my holiday planning now.

Don’t Forget Travel & Entertaining

Don’t Forget Travel & Entertaining

When you’re creating a spending plan, figure out both how much you have to spend for the holidays and exactly how you’ll spend it. Include gifts, of course, but don’t forget to plan ahead for travel (extra gas for the car counts here) and entertaining expenses too. “People tend to forget to budget for the actual number of people they want to buy for,” says certified financial planner Luna Jaffe, author of “Wild Money: A Creative Journey to Financial Wisdom.” “If you’re compromised financially, be honest about that. Let people know that you can’t buy extravagant gifts this year. But maybe you can give a gift from the heart. It takes time and thought to write a letter and say how much someone means to you.”

In other words: If you plan ahead, you can put more time and thought into the gifts you give and, often, end up spending less money. (Last-minute shopping is a formula for overspending, since you’re short on time and long on desperation.) Don’t forget that if you’re hosting guests for the holidays, be it for a holiday dinner or house guests, it’s going to cost you extra. “People do not budget for entertaining,” says Jaffe. “I hear all the time, ‘I forgot that it would cost $500 to feed 25 people.’” You can avoid this by asking your friends and family in advance to bring a side dish, dessert or a bottle for the wine shelf.

Make a List, Check It Twice

Make a List, Check It Twice

I am a serial list-maker. Problem is, most of the time those lists just remain in my head. But this year I’m putting my Excel skills to work by making a spreadsheet of everyone I need to get a gift for, from my mom to my UPS man.  I’m going to figure out how much I’ll spend on each person and what gift I’ll get before I hit the stores. Kelli Bhattacharjee offers a free template on her website, FreebieFindingMom.com.

Once you’ve made a list, tally how much you can spend total on all of your gift-giving, then divvy up the money. There’s a good chance you’ll realize you have to spend less than you thought per gift in order to stick to your budget. And then continue to update the list throughout the year as you have ideas for gifts you want to buy next year.

“You might see something in a magazine and think, ‘My mom will love that for Christmas,’” says Trae Bodge, senior editor at online coupon site Retail Me Not. “Write it down. Keep your eyes peeled for deals as they come along. If you get that 20 percent off mailer, you can use it on that and have your mother's gift all taken care of.”

Compare Prices and Deals Online

Compare Prices and Deals Online

When you shop online, you avoid the in-person browsing that can tempt you into making extra, budget-busting, purchases. You can also easily find the best price for what you want. Sites such as Google Shopping and Price Grabber compare prices on an array of items such as furniture, electronics and toys. RackItUp.com and Hukkster.com allow you to tag clothes, shoes and accessories you want to buy and be alerted when they go on sale.

Only Use Credit if You Get Extra Benefits

Only Use Credit if You Get Extra Benefits

Using your debit card or cash for purchases is the best way to not overspend, says Jaffe. But if you are very disciplined, your holiday charges can save you money. From October through December, Discover card offers cardmembers 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 worth of online purchases (that’s as much as $75 in savings).

Now is also the time to look at your credit card point and rewards plans to see if you can earn extra discounts at certain retailers or buy gifts using points – which is essentially free money. American Express, for example, allows you to buy everything from travel to clothes to home furnishings using Membership Rewards points.

When You Can, Buy in Bulk

When You Can, Buy in Bulk

Found a great gift at a great price for hostesses, teachers or your hairstylist? Buy a bunch and then wrap them right away so they’re ready when you need to run out the door (or find yourself in that awkward situation where someone got you a gift but you didn’t reciprocate). If you shop at a warehouse club, you can get gift sets at deep discounts (and then break them up into individual gifts). Have a bottle of wine that’s affordable and good? Buy a case and you’ll likely get a discount of between 10 to 20 percent.

“I printed out a bunch of signs that said, ‘Love, The Reich Family,’ and I stick one on a bottle of wine and then we’re out the door,” says professional organizer Barbara Reich, author of “Secrets of an Organized Mom.” Buy beautiful stationery in bulk – it’s cheaper than purchasing individual cards and if you pick a neutral color, you can use them all year long.

Shop Wisely on Black Friday

Shop Wisely on Black Friday

Yes, there are a lot of sales advertised on Black Friday. Why else would a record 247 million shoppers have visited stores and websites over the 2012 post-Thanksgiving weekend? The average shopper spent $423, they started shopping earlier than ever (on Thanksgiving Day) and did 40 percent of their spending online.

Nearly 60 percent of shoppers buy clothing and accessories. But the best deals by far are on electronics, says Bodge. (They make up more than a third of Black Friday weekend sales.) If you know you want to buy a new TV, laptop or camera, maybe it’s worth your time to line up at 4 a.m. and get the doorbuster deal. Otherwise, you can probably sleep in and find similar – if not better – deals throughout the shopping season.

Know Your Pricing

Know Your Pricing

Forty percent off! Half off! Buy one get one free! The sales banners can be tempting. But the question to always ask yourself is: Half off of what? “Arm yourself with the accurate retail price of an item,” says Bodge. “For example, if you want to buy a specific vase but have no idea what it costs, and you see a sale, you’ll think you’re getting deal. But if it’s on sale for $60, and the retail price at another store is actually $60, then you’re just being tricked into thinking it’s a good deal.”

So when you see that “Sale!” sign, instead of gleefully grabbing the coveted item, first pull out your smartphone and comparison shop. Websites such as Google Shopping and BizRate.com or barcode scanner apps such as RedLaser and ShopSavvy can help ensure you get the best deal.

Buy Hot Items Early

Buy Hot Items Early

The new Furby and Baby Alive are sure to be the hot toys this holiday season, says Bodge. If you want one, buy early because supply might dry up as the holidays approach. And while these items themselves probably won’t go on sale, Bodge suggests checking out Retail Me Not for store-wide coupons at places such as Toys“R”Us and Target as a way to save on what Santa will put under the tree.

Take Advantage of Free Giftwrap

Take Advantage of Free Giftwrap

Wrapping paper, gift bags, tissue paper, ribbons and tape are unexpected holiday expenses that can rack up quickly. So if the store or mall where you’re shopping offers free or low-cost gift wrapping, take advantage of it. During the holidays, nonprofit groups set up a table at many Barnes and Noble stores and wrap gifts for free (donations are encouraged). Last year, a couple of efficient and proud Boy Scouts wrapped my purchases.

Some stores, such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Babies“R”Us, have free gift wrapping stations at the store. Lord & Taylor and Tiffany have such pretty boxes that all you need is a ribbon and you’re done (Tiffany gives you its signature white one with purchase).

Consumer Reports has a list of stores that offer free gift wrap. Small merchants are also much more likely to offer this service than big retailers, so always ask the clerk at checkout.

For gifts you wrap yourself, opt for paper instead of gift bags says Bodge. Gift bags are tempting because they’re easy to use, but they cost a lot more per gift than a mega-sized roll of wrapping paper you can get from a warehouse club or from sites such as www.giftwrapgifts.com.

Don’t Forget What You’ve Already Bought

Don’t Forget What You’ve Already Bought

It’s happened to me more than once – while on summer vacation I picked up a gift that would be perfect for Christmas, only to put it in a closet and completely forget about it. Using the holiday planning list and updating it each time you make a purchase all year long will help save you from losing control of your gift inventory. But for right now, take a minute to think – is there anything you’ve already purchased that you’ve forgotten about, or something you purchased but have never used that could be used as a gift? If so, wrap it up and put a name on it. Then cross that person off your list.

Book Your Travel Now

Book Your Travel Now

The earlier you purchase plane, train or bus tickets, the better the price. If you need to book hotel and car as well, Bodge recommends using a site like Expedia or Orbitz that allow you to purchase vacation packages. “If you do that, you can save up to $200 for a four-day trip,” Bodge says. Sites such as Kayak allow you to see the average fare price for each day around the time you want to travel, so if you’re flexible with your itinerary, you can save. In general, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel, says Bodge. 

For Thanksgiving, my family often travels to Florida, and I’ve found that booking travel on Thanksgiving Day can save as much as $200 per ticket. Plus, the flights and airports are generally less crowded, which helps us get to our turkey dinner on time.

When booking airline tickets, take into account each airlines’ baggage policy. JetBlue allows you one free checked bag up to 50 pounds; Southwest allows two. Other airlines charge at least $25 per bag. Also, if you shop online and have your purchases sent directly to your destination (hopefully with free shipping) you can save yourself from having to pay to lug them across the skies.

And Then in January…

And Then in January…

Instead of crying over my Amex bill, I’ll hit the stores to pick up the newly-discounted Christmas loot, such as gift wrap and decorations, I’ll need for next year. January is also the perfect time to open a savings account that’s just for the holidays, says Jaffe. If you set up an automatic weekly withdrawal, you’ll be financially ready for next year.

Look at your spreadsheet and see how much you spent this year, divide it by 52 and set up an automatic withdrawal to a “holiday account.” Just $10 a week will net $520, $25 a week and you’ll have $1,300. And if you have anything left over, you can buy yourself a nice present.

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