Even the most financially diligent among us can find ourselves overspending at holiday time, then gulping when we see the result. The National Retail Federation has indicated that it expects consumers to spend from $727.9 billion to $730.7 billion – yes, billion – on holiday shopping in 2019.
Nobody wants to be tagged as that cheapskate friend or family member when everyone else is throwing handfuls of money at every store in sight. But some strategies can rule over impulse and pressure so shoppers can look at their finances come January without weeping.
1. Cash Is King
Spending cash is good and whipping plastic out for every purchase is bad. That’s true all year, but it’s especially the case during peak spending periods like the holidays.
Take cash with you when and if you venture into brick-and-mortar stores. Leave the credit cards at home. You can’t possibly be tempted to buy just one more thing for that special someone if the cash in your wallet is gone and the plastic is back home tucked into a drawer.
2. Saving – The “S” Word
Of course, depleting your checking account of cash isn’t the way to go either because you still have household bills to pay. You have to raise cash, and this is a project best begun months in advance.
You’ve probably already heard of most of the standard tricks: drop your change or even dollar bills into a jar each night, and deposit unexpected “extra” money like tax refunds, raises, rebates, and money you’ve saved by not spending on yourself into a dedicated holiday savings account. The point is to tuck away whatever you can whenever you can. You’ll be glad you did.
Read More: How to File Taxes Early for Christmas
3. The Budget Literally Comes First
Bankrate suggests flipflopping your holiday gift approach. Instead of starting with a list of who you have to buy for and what you want to give them, begin with a firm handle on how much you can spend overall. Then do your gift list and decide how much of that total spending number you want to dedicate to each person on your list.
Your brother might want a new game console, but you can give him a series of games for his existing console instead if you’ve allotted $300 to him and the new one costs $400.
And yes, take that list with you when you go shopping – and stick to it. You’ll be less likely to splurge on a perfect gift you never even thought of because you’ve already bought for that individual. Cross names and those items off your list after they’ve been purchased…and stop there, no matter how much you love the individual. No impulse buying!
4. If You Simply Must Use Plastic
Cash isn’t a feasible option for everyone, but some credit card tips can help if you simply must use plastic. Stick to those with cash or other rewards for spending. Avoid using those that just take your money and charge interest. And, of course, check out those interest rates. Use the card or cards that charge the least.
And sometimes cash is plastic, in the form of debit cards. Consider setting up an account that offers a percentage back in cash of whatever you spend using the card. Discover Cashback Debit is one option.
Read More: How to Make Money From Your Debit Card
5. Rethink the Definition of Giving
You might not be labeled as a cheapskate or a Scrooge if you opt for giving your time rather than some splashy gift that could find its way into a closet never to be seen again because...well, it's nice, but it's not really what that person wanted.
Maybe your mother doesn’t drive. Offer her transportation services once a month or so for the next 12 months. Take her shopping or to do errands so she doesn’t have to spend her money on a taxi or Uber.
Maybe your best friend hates to cook or is just too busy in his new job to deal with it. Have meals delivered to him on a set schedule, maybe once a month or once a week for a month. Make them yourself if cooking is your thing, or have them delivered from his favorite restaurant. It might please him more than that expensive sweater.
There’s an added bonus here for you: You’re not depleting your cash or running up your credit card balance in December. You can pay for these types of gifts as you go along in the coming year.
6. Those Holiday Parties
The holidays aren’t just about gift giving. All those parties and gatherings can take a financial toll, too. You can use the “cash only” rule here as well.
Don’t run a tab. Pay for your drinks and noshes with cash when you’re at a bar so you can see that pile of dollars gradually dwindle as the night goes on. When the money is gone, it’s gone. You’ve had a great time, and you might even feel fewer after-effects the next day.
And there’s no written rule that you must show up on a friend’s doorstep holding two bottles of the finest champagne your local liquor store has to offer. Volunteer in advance to make a tray of your specialty hors d'oeuvres instead or – depending on your relationship with the host – offer to stop by and help clean the house before the party or stay later to tidy up after the festivities.
It’s a safe bet that somebody else will arrive toting that champagne.
The Bottom Line: Timing Is Everything
The key to almost every holiday spending trick is time. Don’t let things go until December. Start organizing and planning your attack in August. This gives you five months to achieve and pay for what you would ordinarily squeeze into one month.
Spread those expenditures out. Even if you end up spending too much, at least you can pay for it in something like an installment agreement over the course of the preceding months.
You might find that you enjoy the holidays a lot more without a financial guillotine hanging over your neck.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.