It may seem crazy to be thinking about the winter holidays in the heat of summer, but if you want to get through Christmas without the usual debt hangover, now's the time to act. Do these six things, and your holiday season will not only be paid for, it will be less stressful and expensive.
1. Make a list. Sure, you might meet someone between now and the winter holidays who'll prove so important to you that you'll want to give him or her a gift, but everyone else on your gift list -- close friends, family members, significant others -- are well-established. Make a list of who they are and what you'd like to buy them. By considering the issue early, you can come up with more thoughtful gifts and potentially buy opportunistically, that is, when those products are on sale.
2. Budget. Once you have a list of who you plan to buy for and what you want, figure out what those items will cost and add it up. If the number is well beyond what you can afford, you may want to employ tip No. 3.
3. Bargain. Not only can you look for sales, you can take a look at ways to rein in spending that's out of control. True confession: At one point my sister and I had gotten into escalating gift-giving war. One of us spent more than normal one year, which caused the other sister to boost her spending the following year. The next year, we were both trying not to be outdone, so spending kept rising. We needed an armistice. So, months before the holiday season, we sat down and discussed how to use that time to show that we loved each other without going bankrupt. We ended up giving each other nonfinancial gifts: I babysat her three kids so she and her hubby could go away for a weekend. She put together a scrapbook for me, organizing photos from the previous year. These turned into our favorite holiday gifts, and our budgets were back in check.
4. Formulate a plan. Once you've figured out what holiday gifts are likely to cost, you need to consider where you're going to get the money. If that's not obvious, take a look at your current expenses and see if you can trim any. You don't have to give up every luxury. But would you pack a lunch once a week to buy gifts for your friends? Would you give up one Starbucks coffee or dump a premium cable channel? By starting five months before you need the money, you have a better chance of saving without extraordinary sacrifice.
5. Adjust your withholding. If you normally get tax refunds, one way to come up with additional income now is to adjust your withholding so the government takes less from your weekly pay and you get a bit more. Your human resources department can help you get to the right withholding, where you neither owe taxes, nor get big refunds.
6. Save automatically. All of your planning and sacrifice will go for nothing if you fail to sock away the cash somewhere that won't tempt you to spend it. So, stick the money in a safe place or set up an automatic savings account with your bank. Also be sure to put all the gifts you buy early in one place, so you won't forget that they've already been checked off your list!