18 ways to save money during the holidays

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Tired of starting the new year with a pile of debt? Shop smart, and you can enjoy the holidays without putting yourself in the poor house. Here are 18 tips to help you make the most of your time and money:

1. Decide how much you can spend. “Most people go about it all wrong,” says Ric Edelman, author of “Financial Security in Troubled Times.” “The first thing they do is come up with a list of people [to buy for].”

Instead, Edelman recommends setting your holiday budget before you go near a store.

One big mistake? People overlook the little extras when they draft a budget. Include everything from postage for Christmas cards to holiday party favors and home decorations to the cost of boarding a pet if you’re traveling.

2. Make a list and check it twice. Armed with your budget, take a cue from St. Nick by making a list of all the people you want to buy for. Then go over the list and decide how much you can spend on each, Edelman suggests. Don’t have enough money to cover your holiday budget? Go through it again, and cut names or amounts. Once you settle on a dollar amount for each person, that’s it. “If you can’t afford a sweater, get something else,” says Edelman. “Focus on the amount you’ll spend, not what you’ll buy.”

For big families, develop a gift list with other relatives, advises Mark Gorkin, a licensed clinical social worker known as “The Stress Doc.” “You shouldn’t have to buy something for everyone,” he says.

3. Pay cash. “If you know that you’ve had trouble in [years] past, do a cash-only Christmas,” says Clark Howard, co-author of the book “Get Clark Smart: The Ultimate Guide for the Savvy Consumer” and host of a nationally syndicated consumer call-in show. His holiday advice: set a limit, take that money out of your credit union or bank, “and when that [money’s] gone, it’s over.”

4. Think of credit cards as short-term loans. Ideally, you’ll want to pay everything off immediately. Have a choice of cards? Always use the card that offers the lowest interest rate. A good idea is to track your credit card spending just as you would if you were writing a check. Remember: It’s really easy in the flurry of the holiday spending to run around and not keep track.

5. Put yourself on your shopping list. It sounds selfish, but it’s really smart. “There are things you would not have bought for yourself that you end up, on impulse, buying [for someone else.],” says Howard. The best antidote: give yourself a little splurge, too.

6. Allow enough time for all your holiday preparations. Who hasn’t run out for a gift at the last minute and ended up paying top dollar? But whether you’re shopping, baking or wrapping presents to send cross-country, budgeting your time can end up saving you tons of money.

— Updated: Nov. 10, 2006

7. Don’t overlook the value of intangibles. Do you want to give someone a gift but don’t have the money? If you’re already baking cookies for your family, making an extra batch as a present for a neighbor is fairly economical. Want to help a friend who’s got a lot on her plate? Offer to baby-sit, walk the dog or take an elderly relative for an outing. The cost is next to nothing, but the gift is priceless.

8. Send e-cards. They’re free, don’t require postage and no one has to wash their hands after opening them. Some even play music, making them a fun, free way to catch up with far-flung friends and family.

9. Just say “no” to toy lust. If your kids still believe in Santa, help them draft real-world wish lists. In the post-Santa years, set some financial boundaries, and give them some choices. “The child still gets a chance to choose,” says Gorkin. “But you help the child remember there are still real limits.”

10. Look for meaning over glitz. “Especially when you get into your 40s and you’ve got everything you need, words and gestures mean more,” says Rachel Ashwell, author of “The Shabby Chic Gift of Giving.” A thoughtful gift can be anything as simple as a set of dice (message: life’s a gamble) to a few beautiful bottles collected for minimum cost at various flea markets or antique marts, Ashwell says.

11. Shop prices, not sales. “You’re going to see sale signs everywhere,” says Howard. “Unless you know the relative value, don’t be fooled. Just because it’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s a bargain.”

12. Give to charities. “Especially with what’s going on in the world now, I think it would be equally appropriate to make a donation to a charity in the name of people for whom you would have provided a gift, instead of giving them something they don’t want or need,” says Edelman. “You’ll spend less, you’ll get a tax deduction for it, and you’ll restore the true meaning of Christmas.”

13. Buy last year’s model. Buying for the baby in your life? At the end of the year, manufacturers are already pushing next year’s strollers, furniture and car seats, so this year’s merchandise is available for up to 30 percent to 40 percent off, according to Alan Fields, who, with wife Denise, wrote “Baby Bargains: Secrets to Saving 20% to 50% on Baby Furniture, Equipment, Clothes, Toys, Maternity Wear, and Much, Much More.” “Invariably the main difference is a simple fabric color,” says Fields. “And no one can tell the difference.” That thinking applies to other types of gifts, too.

14. Use gift registries. “[These] have really blossomed over the last year or so,” says Fields. One caveat: Check the return policy at the store before you sign up. At one store in particular, “if you don’t have a gift receipt and the gift costs more than $75, you can’t return it,” says Fields. As a giver, always get a gift receipt, which doesn’t show how much you paid, only where you purchased the item. As the giftee, check return policies before using a store registry.

— Updated: Nov. 10, 2006

15. Shop for weddings at Christmas. Even if your big day is a year away, holidays are a great time to get a deal on bridal gowns and bridesmaids’ dresses. “This is the slowest time of the year for bridal apparel shops,” says Fields, who also co-authored “Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget.” “No one goes shopping for wedding dresses in November or December.”

16. Get married during the holidays. Shopping for a wedding date? December offers some pluses in the budget department. “Most churches are already decorated for Christmas, which means you get to save a lot on flowers,” says Fields, who estimates that couples can cut at least $500 from their budgets by planning Yuletide nuptials. The downside: because of holiday parties, many caterers, bands and DJs are booked for the season, which means it’s not a great time to plan a huge event. But if you have your heart set on an intimate gathering, you can have the wedding of your dreams and a nice nest egg to start your new life together.

17. Take a vacation. Resorts and cruise ships are hurting for business, says Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World,” which makes this a great time for a luxury getaway. “They’ve paid for the hotel [rooms], and that’s a cost they’re stuck with,” says Hasbrouck. “Similarly cruise lines are in particularly bad shape.”

“If you want to get away, you will see all kinds of hotels offering truly unprecedented bargains,” says Hasbrouck. “For not much, if anything, more than Motel 6 prices you can have a much nicer hotel. This will make it quite tempting to get away over the holidays.”

But shop around. The same room at the same hotel can fetch vastly different prices depending on how it is booked. Look up the hotel online, through a broker and through the hotel chain’s Web site; chances are the prices will be different, and you might need the special codes listed on those sites to get the deal, according to Howard.

“What I like for people to do with hotels is try various online search sites, then call the hotel directly and call central reservations,” says Howard. “No matter what price is quoted, act shocked. Say, ‘Don’t you have anything better than that?'” Just like hotels, rental car companies are hurting for business and offering some good deals — daily rates for less than $20, according to Howard — so do your homework.

18. Remember the reason for the season. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, keeping the holiday’s spiritual message front and center is a good antidote to the holiday gimmes. “Instead of spending weekends leading up to Christmas in the mall, it would be a lot better gift to spend your time with your family,” says Howard.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

— Updated: Nov. 10, 2006