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How To Budget For Holiday Shopping If You Haven’t Saved For Gifts

No money for Christmas gifts this year? Get a plan, opt out when you can, and don’t get so caught up in holiday spirit that you forget your other goals. Here’s how to stretch your budget and get the most presents for your buck.

How to Budget for Holiday Shopping if you Haven't Saved for GiftsThe holidays are quickly approaching. Do you know how many presents you still need to buy? More importantly – do you know how much those gifts are going to cost?

Last year, the Business Insider found that holiday shoppers spent nearly $400 on Black Friday alone. And that’s just one day! CBS News predicted that shoppers will spend $750 on gifts for the entire holiday season. If you’re not prepared in advance to shell out that kind of cash, it can be a pretty hard blow to the ol’ pocket book.

Still, there are ways to rein in your spending on Christmas presents, especially if you didn’t save for the holidays in advance. Try these ideas:

1. Plan

Before you do anything, you need a plan. A plan could save you hundreds of dollars and your sanity.

To start, you’ll need to gather ideas. Put out the feelers to those that you have to buy gifts for. What are they interested in this year? Where do they shop? What do they do for fun? E-mail or call friends to compile your ideas.

I usually put on my “nerd hat” this time of year and break out an Excel spreadsheet to document my gift-giving plan. It’s an easy way to gather all your ideas in one place so you can start scouting deals. If you’re not into Excel, use your preferred list-making method – pen and paper, email to yourself, notepad app … the list goes on and on.

Are you a smart phone user? You can use your device to better plan your holiday gift giving. Here’s a good list from PC Mag listing 8 apps for organizing holiday gift giving.

Another great perk of having a plan is being able to check for coupons before you buy. Several tipsters in this article from Real Simple agree that planning and couponing save them big bucks during the holidays.

2. Opt out of presents

This may seem like common sense, but consider spending time with friends or family for the holidays instead of exchanging presents. I see some of my family members just once a year – during the holidays.  Why not just enjoy the gift of company instead of giving material gifts? Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

Don’t be afraid to suggest a no-gift policy with some of your extended family members. It’s almost a guarantee that 99 percent of people will be relieved – their shopping list just got shorter!

3. DIY

Everybody’s favorite time suck – Pinterest – is crawling with cute and cheap DIY gifts. Here are some of my favorites:

Don’t forget to follow Money Under 30 on Pinterest for more ideas!

4. Give ‘em what they want

I used to be the type that hated giving gift cards, money, or alcohol as Christmas presents. I felt like that was a total lazy way out.

But after receiving (and giving!) too many Christmas gifts that just weren’t right for me (or the receiver), I’ve decided to toss out my old notions of banning those so-called “lazy” gifts. Because, really, who doesn’t like those gifts? I know I got a lot more use out of my gift cards last Christmas than I did from the puke green robe I received (which now lives in the racks of Goodwill).

The other great thing about these lazy-but-oh-so-desirable gifts? They can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want. A $10 iTunes, Starbucks, or Target gift card can go a long way. You can easily snag a bottle of wine or build a 6-pack of craft beer for under $10. And you can never go wrong with a crisp $10 or $20 bill (especially for kids).

5. Set a limit

Do you have a budget set for every person you have to buy a gift for? If not, set one and add it to your gift-giving plan.

If you saved in advance, perhaps you have a more flexible budget. If not, put a cap of $15 or $25 on each person. If you think it’s necessary, make a pact with your friend or family member and promise that neither of you will spend more than X amount (to prevent that I-gave-you-an-iPod-and-all-I-got-was-this-$10-Starbucks-gift-card awkwardness).

6. Meet financial goals with your significant other

I know it seems like no fun, but hear me out.

I love this article from Kiplinger from a couple years ago about better ways to spend your holiday budget. The author lists things every financially-savvy person should already know about – paying down debt, saving for the bigger things, investing, and more.

When you’re in a committed relationship (and especially if you’ve already combined finances), you often share the same financial goals. Spending frivolously on gifts for each other when you’re trying to pay off student loans or save for that trip to Mexico just doesn’t make sense.

I know it can seem very “bah-humbug-esque” to not give something to your sweetie, so maybe you can opt for a cute DIY gift instead? A cute ornament proclaiming your “First Christmas Together” or a coupon for a homemade meal can be wrapped and given just like any expensive gift.

Why not give the gift of staying on track with your finances instead of veering way off track with hundreds of dollars in gifts you might only use a couple of times?

Happy giving!

No matter what you decide about your holiday spending, hopefully you enjoy the time with your loved ones. After all, isn’t spending time with family what the holidays are all about? Well, that and copious helpings of sugar and turkey and other delicious holiday treats.

How do you budget for the holidays if you haven’t saved in advance?

Published or updated on November 27, 2012

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About Amber Gilstrap

Amber is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money. Follow her on twitter @amberinks.


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  1. All great tips to get you through this holiday season while keeping spending in check. I would urge those that have saved nothing to start saving for the holidays in January of next year. I have a separate savings account where I transfer a small amount from each paycheck. I never miss the money and like that I don’t have to worry about how to pay for gifts each year. Plus, it keeps my spending in check. If there is $500 in the account, then I know I can only spend a total of $500 for gifts this year.

  2. Mayer says:

    Wife: “Honey, here’s an ipad mini for Christmas”

    Me: “Thanks. This year, I decided opt out of presents. This may seem like common sense, but I’ve decided to spending time with you for the holidays instead of exchanging presents. Why not just enjoy the gift of my company instead of giving a material gift? It’s cheesy, but it’s true. Plus, I’m 99 percent sure you’ll be relieved – your shopping list just got shorter!”

    Wife: “Seriously? Get the hell out of here.

    Someday, a financial blog will give real world advice…

    • Amber says:

      Tip #7 … Communicate beforehand! Haha.

      I get that most people probably don’t want to forgo the gifts during the holidays. It’s very bah-humbug-esque. But what if you really don’t have the extra cash for gifts this year? Hopefully these tips can help those that might not be able to afford to give as much.

  3. Marie says:

    Last year was the first time I actually tracked my Christmas gift spending in an Excel file and I couldn’t believe how $15 here and $20 there added up! This is our first Christmas as newlyweds so we have been brainstorming how best to approach gift-giving this year.

    We are looking at nice yet inexpensive presents like books and photo calendars, and shopping sales, sales, sales. We have also opted out of gift exchanges with some family members, which is such a relief!

    • Amber says:

      We have been opting out of more gift exchanges, as well! And I notice more of our friends and relative are, too.

      Just shaving a couple of gift exchanges off your list can save you more than you think — like you said, $15 and $20 can really add up!

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