Don't shop without a list
Even if you expect to pare the number of people on your Christmas gift list, you need a starting point. That's why "list advocate" Paula Rizzo of ListProducer.com says making a list puts you at an immediate advantage. "Shopping with a list is like using a road map: If you put some effort into organizing your list before you hit the stores, you are more likely to get more done," Rizzo says.
By scrutinizing the list of people you usually buy for, you can see where you've spent your money during past holiday seasons. When you're done forming and trimming your list, use it to focus your shopping. Then, says Rizzo, you won't stroll around the mall overspending on the people who remain on it.
Put it under a microscope
Perhaps you're still giving gifts with a former work colleague or neighbor with whom you no longer socialize, or you mail a package to a high school buddy out of habit each holiday season.
Leah Ingram, whose blog "The Confident Spender" explores strategies for living well with less, says it's perfectly fine to prune your Christmas gift list. "There is no reason to continue to buy gifts for people who are no longer meaningful to you. That kind of excess -- buying a gift just 'cause you can -- seems so dot-com boom!"
Be upfront about your intentions
Cutting back on the number of potential gift recipients on your list is fine, says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. The key to doing it right is all in the way you communicate your plans. "Waiting until I'm at a holiday gathering and people are handing me gifts to tell my sister-in-law I've decided not to give her (one) this year is too late," Smith says.
She suggests that you tell those with whom you usually exchange gifts well in advance that you're forgoing the custom this time around so they can adjust their own shopping lists. Smith says most people are grateful for the chance to cut back.
Also, remember that gift-giving doesn't always have to be quid pro quo. If you made it clear you're not buying someone a gift and you end up with a beautifully wrapped package anyway, thank the gift-giver and give yourself permission to skip the holiday trepidation.
Limit family gifts to small children or draw names. Ingram says she's still trying to sell her own clan on the joys of using a Secret Santa or other gift-giving device. "This would cut down on the gift clutter so much," Ingram says.
Although Ingram says she's not been able to make inroads on some family gifting practices, she does like their "unwritten rule" that after reaching 21 or graduating from college, a child ages out of the automatic gift routine. "The aunts and uncles and everyone else are off the hook from buying you a gift," Ingram says.
Invest time rather than money
Cyndi Cook Travis, who lives with her husband outside of Chicago, says she has tamed her holiday gift list not by paring it, but by changing the types of gifts she gives. Instead of giving the usual bottle of wine or gift card to neighbors, she's handed out homemade treats.
She's not the only one. Lots of Americans are selecting the homemade route over hit-or-miss buying made in busy, overcrowded stores. From handcrafted chocolates to knitted scarves, personalizing a gift can make it much more special to the recipient.
Shop all year
It may be too late to do it this year, but promise yourself you'll be on the lookout for deals and special gifts year-round so that when 2015 nears an end, you'll have the bulk of your holiday gifts purchased and ready for wrapping.
Not only does it really save money (think post-holiday sales when stuff is discounted as much as 90 percent), but it also keeps you from making those last-minute impulse purchases. And it's easier on your budget to buy one or two bargain-basement gifts a month instead of trying to do it all at once. Just stay away from foodstuffs, trendy items that are likely to be outdated in 12 months, and children's clothing because kids' sizes change so fast.
Don't skip the tip
It's tempting to skip the December haircut and avoid that obligatory holiday tip, but can you really eliminate the tips to shorten your shopping list or -- is that just plain tacky? Smith says if you can't afford to pay the tip, then perhaps you shouldn't be using the service provider.
"If your tipping at the end of the year is putting you into debt, then you should be looking at your lifestyle," Smith says. If tipping your manicurist, hairdresser, dog walker and the guy who shovels the snow in your driveway will put you over the edge, then perhaps you should be doing your own manicures and shoveling your own snow, she says.
However, stiffing the people you should tip is a no-no.
Have a meaningful holiday
For many, it's simply a matter of putting one's budget in place. They also want to tame the commercialism in favor of what the holiday really means from a religious or family perspective. Help tap into the meaning of the season by giving gifts to a charity, nursing home or homeless shelter, or donating to another good cause. Tell the people with whom you normally swap gifts.
If exchanging gifts is a normal part of your workplace's tradition, perhaps this is the year to suggest a group effort. Check with your human resources department first to see what's allowed. Adopt a family or charity and pool your resources to make the holidays brighter for someone else. Not only can it be individually more economical, but also it's gratifying to come together as a group and make the world a better place.
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