smart spending

Holiday happiness: get it all, pay less

Highlights
  • Set new ground rules to prevent overspending.
  • Organize your shopping list, then buy only one gift per pay period.
  • Perfectly good new and nearly new toys abound at garage and yard sales.

OK, despite your best intentions, you never quite got around to saving for the holidays, and now that the festivities are approaching, you're not exactly flush with cash.

Cheer up! With a little creativity, you can still save your holidays. Who knows, you might even have a warmer, closer gathering with family and friends without the credit card hangover that comes from holiday overspending.

The federal government's Citizen Information Center in Pueblo, Colo., has a bunch of ideas, and using them as a stepping-off point it's possible to find a number of ways to have all the fun you want this holiday season without going broke.

Here are some methods you can choose to use to save your holidays:

  • The 'Card-n-all' Rule: If your liquidity has only temporarily dried up, you may still have time to buy now and pay later. Depending on how much time you think you'll need to acquire the money you expect to spend, you might check into low introductory APR credit cards that offer zero percent for three to six months. Pay it off, cancel the card, ho ho ho. If you need less cushion, say a month or so, check the closing date on your last credit card statement. Let's say it closes on the 20th of the month. Window-shop for your presents now or even put them on layaway until after Dec. 20, then charge them. You won't receive the bill until February.
  • The Payday Shopper: Organize your shopping list, then buy only one gift per pay period. You'll hardly miss the money and you'll be less likely to succumb to overbuying at the mall.
  • The Man In The Moon: Go moonlighting. That's right, take a second job or an extra shift at work. There's still time to earn extra money for those holiday gifts.
  • The My Mouse To Your House: Let your fingers do your shopping. You're more likely to purchase meaningful presents and less likely to fall victim to capricious holi-daze spending.
  • The Bag Lady: Kids, bless them, have not been brainwashed into believing that the only fit gift is one that comes sealed in industrial packaging. Perfectly good new and nearly new toys, games, clothing and cool stuff abound at garage and yard sales, at your budget, without sales tax.
  • The Who Knew: Used CDs and DVDs make great gifts for the whole family and fill the house with a joyful noise. You'll get two to three discs for the cost of one at the mall.
  • The Pretty As My Picture: Don't blow your time and money shopping for individual gifts for everyone; give each of them the one gift that only you can give: a photo of yourself. For under $50 and a few smiles, you can delight far-flung aunts and uncles with how well your orthodontia turned out.

Unthink your old traditional ways

By taking these tips, maybe you'll scrimp by this holiday season. But what about next year, and the year after that? If it's rampant holiday commercialism that's got you down, maybe you need to start a few new family traditions, ones that won't leave you cash poor the rest of the year.

That's what Nancy Castleman and Marc Eisenson did. The authors of "Invest in Yourself: Six Secrets to a Rich Life" applied their clear-eyed frugality to their large extended family gatherings to create holidays that save dollars and make sense.

"It's not too late to have a family holiday sanity meeting," says Nancy.

There are a number of things about your holiday seasons' habits and traditions that you can change without losing the sense of fun and family that make it a great family time of year.

Advertisers want you to think everyone has to go out and spend like gangbusters if they are to enjoy the season.

Not so.

Do it your way, not the advertisers' way

One thing you can do is set new ground rules. Give yourself a dollar limit, give gifts to children only, stop exchanging gifts entirely, or have a lottery so you only have to buy one person a really great gift.

"If you can focus on just one thing, you have plenty of time to buy something really perfect for that person," says Nancy. "If you have a list of 10 people, you end up buying a lot of meaningless junk, spending more money than you would have, and getting 'malled' in the process."

Another effective change is to have all agree that gifts don't have to have shape, size and weight. You can give the gift of time. Whether it's baby-sitting, odd jobs or a home-cooked meal once a week, your time may be one of the best gifts you'll ever give.

With the same thinking you can give some of your talents. Guitar playing. Painting. Knitting. If you love it, consider giving lessons in it as a gift. "I think most people would rather learn a new skill than get a hideous something-or-other," says Eisenson.

Try a little more togetherness as a shortcut to having family fun. If you all pitch in and do something together, it can cut your individual costs. For example, a few years ago, Castleman and Eisenson started a new family tradition and rented a double house at the North Carolina shore.

"They are both four-bedroom houses right on the beach with terraces, lanai, individual fireplaces -- things none of us could afford in the day-to-day," says Nancy. "They come with fully equipped kitchens, which we need with our big gang. It saves us all more than 50 percent over hotels and we get a lot more."

Dec. 39th, wheeeeee

One simple piece of lateral thinking can save a bundle and make your holidays unlike all of those free-spenders around you. Just change the date. Simply celebrate the holidays a little early or a little late and take advantage of not only better rates and availability but fewer crowds. Castleman and Eisenson do.

"We have such a big family that we can't always get them all together," says Eisenson. "It's great to take advantage of the preseason rates at places like our favorite vacation spot, Florida's Sanibel Island. You also save on air fares. It's not for everybody but it works great for us."

Maybe the last piece of advice from Nancy is as important as anything you'll ever hear about this time of year: Think like a kid again.

"The little ones would be just as happy with five gifts as 50," says Castleman. "What they really want is for you to sit down on the floor and play with them. That's worth everything."

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