The closer the holidays loom, the less time harried families have to buy gifts, plan seasonal events and make travel arrangements. Unfortunately, when time is at a premium and you're forced to make last-minute decisions, it's usually your budget that suffers.
As an occasional procrastinator myself, let me share a few tips I've picked up over the years that can help take the expense – and stress – out of holiday planning:
Before you start shopping, calculate how much you can afford to spend on the holidays as a portion of your overall budget. If your finances are in good shape, spend no more than 1.5 percent of your annual income. But if you're deeply in debt, can't meet your regular monthly expenses or don't have an emergency fund, this isn't the time to rack up additional debt.
Once you determine an overall amount, tally up expected holiday-related expenses including gifts, decorations, new clothes and accessories, giftwrap, cards, postage, special meals and year-end gratuities. Don't forget travel-related expenses if you plan to leave town, and try to recall unanticipated expenses from last year.
If you're looking for ways to cut back, consider:
* Arrange gift lotteries with family members and friends so everyone concentrates their time, effort and money on buying fewer, nicer gifts.
* Speak candidly with friends, coworkers and extended family about placing a moratorium on exchanging gifts. They're probably feeling the pinch too.
* If the gift-giving gesture is important to you, suggest pooling resources with others to make a sizeable contribution to a charity you all believe in.
Once you've determined your overall holiday spending budget – and before you start shopping – make a detailed list that includes:
* Everyone on your shopping list.
* Spending limits and several gift alternatives for each person.
* How much you actually spend on each gift. If you overspend on one present you'll need to make up for it elsewhere.
* What you gave each person – to avoid giving them the same thing next year.
* What each person gave you to avoid "re-gifting" disasters later on.
* Other expenses (decorations, etc.)
Some people relish hunting for bargains; others loathe it. Either way, here are a few money-saving tips:
* Clip newspaper and online coupons. Stores often match competitors' prices even if their own items aren't on sale. Plus, many consolidation websites post downloadable coupons and sale codes for online retailers.
* Mobile shopping apps let in-store smartphone and tablet users scan product barcodes and make on-the-spot price comparisons, read reviews, download coupons, buy products and more.
* If you're traveling for the holidays, note that many airlines charge $25 or more for each checked bag. Many stores and websites ship gifts for free, saving you hassle at the airport.
* Carefully read purchase-return policies for deadlines, exclusions (e.g., for sale or clearance items) and restocking charges.
* Keep receipts. Many retailers will refund the price difference if an item goes on sale within a few weeks after purchase.
* Check whether your credit card agreement provides free product warranty extensions and/or price protection.
And finally, consider the gift of time. Older relatives don't need more chocolates, but they probably could use help with chores, running errands or rides to doctor's appointments. Plus, they would probably appreciate your company. Offer to babysit for harried parents so they can run a few errands or simply recharge their batteries.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.