Living with credit, Rewards, Shopping

My don’t-wait-until-the-last-minute holiday checklist

Dawn Papandrea

While I’m mostly of the belief that any sort of Christmas music or decoration must wait until after I’ve had my turkey, I have found that getting into a December mindset in November is good for my budget.

Here’s what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks to come out of the holidays debt-free.

1. Draft a budget to rein in holiday spending.

I use a spreadsheet every year to keep track of all the gifts I need to buy. Last year, it really helped me stick to dollar limits I set for each person, so I’m going to work off of that to start.

Next, I will estimate other seasonal expenses, such as holiday cards (Note to self: Check Groupon for that great discount I found on personalized photo cards last year).

Finally, I will check how much I have saved up in my “fun budget,” and try to pick up some extra work to ensure I have enough to cover upcoming costs.

If I’m still coming up short, I’ll scale back on gifts as necessary.

This year’s holiday budget will be about the same as last year’s, but I may shift things around a little. For example, we’ll save by doing our own family photos (instead of posing for a photographer, as we did when the kids were younger), but maybe we’ll host a small get-together with friends.

2. Redeem credit rewards for gift cards.

For the past few years, I’ve let my points build on one of my main credit cards so that I can get an instant holiday budget boost by redeeming them for gift cards.

Cashing in my rewards for gift cards means I’ll have a couple of $10, $15 and $25 gift cards that I can give to hard-to-shop-for relatives, teachers/coaches, etc.

Then, I’ll redeem any remaining points for Amazon and Kohl’s gift cards to supplement my shopping, since they are my go-to retailers.

Redeemed rewards take a couple of weeks to arrive, so log on now to ensure those gift cards arrive in time for your gift-giving and holiday shopping.

3. Check credit card sign-up bonus offers.

If you’re in the market for a new rewards card, this can be a great time of year to apply. I signed up for a new rewards card – the American Express Blue Cash Everyday card with a $250 sign-up bonus (now $150) last year –  and it proved to be a great move.

For starters, holiday shopping made it easy for me to meet the sign-up bonus minimum spending requirements, and I was able to get a 0 percent APR for 12 months. This gave me peace of mind since I knew I had a year to pay off the bill with no interest if I needed it.

Note: I’m not at all recommending that you should get a new card so you can go overboard. But, if you can get more value out of what you were planning to spend anyway, then why not?

4. Talk to my kids about reasonable expectations.

I do enjoy spoiling my sons (ages 13 and 8) for their birthdays and Christmas since we don’t really overindulge the rest of the year.

That being said, I take a moment to remind them that there are some things that they just can’t have, like $250 sneakers or some expensive, impossible-to-find toy that will end up neglected after the novelty wears off.

What’s reasonable? Setting some expectations now helps before they put together their wish lists.

5. Drop a “hint hint” gifts I might want.

I used to get so many sweaters or pieces of jewelry that I never wore. Then, I started making it known to family and close friends about things I could really use, or small indulgences I would love but for which I would rarely treat myself.

So what’s will I “hint hint” about this year? Nice workout clothes, Starbucks gift cards and a wish list full of books.

5. Visit dollar stores and discount retailers.

Small items are what often blow budgets if you wait until crunch time and pay more than you should.

If I have a few hours to spare in coming weeks, I’m going to try to pick up holiday decor, stocking stuffers, supplies for do-it-yourself gifts, and food pantry and other items for donations.

6. Speaking of DIY …

Sometimes the most appreciated gifts are those that don’t cost a lot of money.

For example, I’ve found that moms and grandmas love photo gifts or something involving artwork the kids made.

Personally, I’ve loved getting hand-knit items from my great aunt over the years, and I’ve enjoyed making up themed baskets for friends.

With DIY gifting, it is key to remember that anything handmade or personalized takes time, which is why I need to head to Pinterest ASAP for some inspiration.

7. Do a closet inventory.

From holiday dressy clothes to gift-wrapping supplies, I’ve learned that I don’t need to go out and buy all new things every year.

I have a stash of gift bags and boxes that I save and reuse, and I’m pretty sure I hit up post-holiday sales in January so I should be all set on tags and paper.

Knowing what I have will help me avoid buying something I don’t need.

If you and I get started on a holiday shopping game plan now, we won’t fall into the trap of impulse shopping and filling our carts in a last-minute frenzy.

What strategies will you be using in the coming weeks to keep holiday spending in check? Post them in the comments below.

See related: 7 ways to unstuff your family budget, 3 ways to stick to your holiday budget, How 4 families rein in their holiday spending4 easy things I did to trim my credit card bill

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