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How to Create a Holiday Budget

‘Tis the season of loving and giving — but you don’t need to give until it hurts to show those you love how you feel.

Overspending during the holiday season is almost an American tradition, so if you’ve gone over your budget in the past, it’s no surprise. Roughly 70% of people splurge to excess during the winter holidays — and the financial hangover they feel in January can be pretty intense. 

With Black Friday just days away, it’s time to get your 2021 holiday budget together — before you hit “Add to Cart” on that website or hit the sales in the stores. We’ve got some ideas that can make it easier:

Make Your Holiday List (and Check It Twice)

Basically, operating on a budget means going into the shopping arena with a plan. That means making a list of all your anticipated holiday expenses, like:

  • Travel expenses (gas, food, lodging)
  • Holiday clothing (for parties, ugly sweater contests, etc.)
  • Holiday cards, wrapping paper, gift bags and tape (because small expenses add up)
  • Decorations, party supplies and food (including baking supplies)

You may notice that there’s one big thing missing from that list above: gifts. Gifts go on a second list because you need to approach each list a little differently when it comes to your budget.

When making your gift list, keep in mind that you may need to pare it down a little bit later, but it’s okay to start big. Make sure you include:

  • Immediate family and extended family 
  • Social gifts, for people whom you see regularly 
  • Co-worker or client gifts (if applicable and appropriate)
  • Gifts for service workers, like your mailman or dog walker
  • Gift exchanges (for work, holiday parties or family events)

Go over your list and make sure that you haven’t omitted anything that you usually spend money on during the holiday season. For example, if you can’t bear the thought of a holiday season without those special peppermint-scented candles, make sure that you have “candles” on your list of expenses.

Decide What’s Necessary … and What’s Just Kind of Nice to Have

This is the tricky part. You have a list of all the things you’d like to buy for the holidays, but you have finite resources — so you need to do a little mental and emotional negotiating with yourself. Ideally, you don’t want to spend any more than you already have set aside for shopping or what you can manage to pull from your regular budget. 

This means no shopping with credit cards or “buy-now, pay-later” options (which can lure you into spending more than you intend). Credit cards and “easy pays” are pretty much the road to ruin when it comes to staying on your budget, and it can be disastrous to your credit score and finances in the coming year. (You definitely don’t want that debt hanging over your head if you plan on house-hunting next year.)

In other words, it’s time to get real about your budget and start cutting costs where you can. Once you see how much you can afford, start allocating the funds according to the items on your list — and start adjusting your expectations according to what you can really afford.

For example, you may love the idea of going all-out for the annual “Ugly Sweater” contest at work, but is that really an honor you need to have? Last year’s sweater may not win you the prize, but it won’t cost you anything, either.

On the other hand, you can’t get away with not buying the holiday ham and cookies — although you might be able to reduce your expenses by making the cookies yourself. Baking supplies are a lot cheaper than pre-made items from the local bakery.

Adjust Your Expectations on Gift Giving (Without Being a Grinch)

Once you’ve gone through all the items on your holiday expense sheet, do the same with gifts — and get granular. You need to drill down hard and assign a dollar limit to each person, and you need to decide who to leave out.

Before you start feeling all “grinchy” about leaving your nieces, nephews, co-workers, and neighbors off your gift list, remember this: It really is the thought that counts. 

It’s okay to talk to the people on your list and say, “I’m working on a budget this year. Would it be okay to meet for coffee instead of exchanging gifts?” More than likely, they’ll be just as relieved as you are not to have the pressure to find a token gift to show your affection to each other — and you get to spend time together, instead!

It’s also okay to “think small” when you’re shopping for token gifts that you simply can’t do without. For example, your dog walker will probably appreciate a $10 Starbucks card even more than they would a $20 box of Godiva. The next-door neighbor who watches your house when you’re away will still feel appreciated if you send over a plate of homemade cookies — instead of having a box delivered from Cheryl’s.

Wrapping It All Up Tight

Finally, if this is the first time you’ve tried to limit your expenses during the holiday season, be gentle with yourself. 

If you stay within your budget, then you’ve figured out the trick to avoiding the financial headaches that come with seasonal overspending. If you fail, look at where things went wrong and start planning for next year. With practice, your holidays will be brighter (and less expensive) every year!