Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How to Stay In Budget at Christmas

Christmas is one of the most expensive times of the year. There's decorations, food, gifts, more gifts, more food, last-minute gifts, cards, postage, travel, the list goes on.

This year we are hosting Christmas lunch at our house for the first time ever. This has been really exciting (I love planning!) and a bit nerve-wracking (because I need things to be perfect). We don't have a lot of extra cash to spend on Christmas, so we had to think how we were going to make this work.

1. Create a Budget
Obviously! It sounds really simple, and it is. Figure out how much money you can realistically spend on Christmas. Then go to the bank and take that money out of your account. For everything Christmas-related, you are going to pay with cash. This makes it much easier to not overspend and to actually keep track of what you are spending.

2. Share the Load
The best Christmases are the ones where everyone helps out. Phil and I sat down and worked out what kind of food we wanted to have on the day. Then we assigned dishes to our family members. This is something normal in our family: we always bring something to share. Everyone had made it clear that they wanted to contribute in this way, so by creating a 'master list' we made sure that we'd have enough and that we weren't doubling up anything. You don't have to be too specific; you could suggest a dessert, or a vegetable side dish, or ask a relative to bring their 'signature dish'. Whatever would help you and works for your situation. If someone doesn't enjoy cooking or doesn't have time to do it, you could ask them to bring something pre-prepared, such as dip to start. Or ask what they'd like to bring and work around that.

3. Write a List
Now that you know what you are going to be responsible for, find recipes and ingredients. Look through your fridge and pantry and see what you already have on hand and what you need to buy. I already have lots of brown sugar, for example, so I won't need to buy more to make the glaze for the ham. I also looked for decorations we already have, and thought about how I could use them in different ways.

4. Look for Sales
Get online and check out the sales at your local stores. This is especially good for items such as decorations and dinnerware. I want a holiday-themed table, so I looked at several stores to see who had the best prices. I could then work out a closer estimate of how much would be spent on decorations vs. food. I decided to go to Ikea to get a lot of the tableware, and had in my mind a figure of around $20 that was allocated to this store. I was so happy to find the items I wanted were further reduced, and I only spent about $10 there. Score!

5. Don't be Afraid of Generic
Seriously, you don't need to buy brand-label everything. For some items, yes, it does make a difference, but for things like sugar, flour, and other baking ingredients, you'll never be able to tell. My usual grocery store has their own brand which is usually much cheaper than the name-brand stuff and is of a good quality. I'm not going to pay a premium for nice packaging.

6. Unpack Carefully
Once you have your decorations and food, put it together on a separate shelf. This way, you won't lose anything, and you won't accidentally use ingredients for other meals. It will be easier to check that you have everything required.

7. Give Homemade Gifts
Christmas is really over-commercialized, and most people just want to spend time with family and friends. I created hand-made gifts for all the adults this year. It saves a lot of money and it's more personal.

8. Stick to the Plan!
It is so easy to impulse-buy when shopping. DON'T. You really need to stick to the list you made previously. I don't care if there's the cutest thing right there, or this product is on sale so you just want to pick up a few because surely you'll use them...NO. This shop is just for your Christmas stuff, which is why you took the money out in cash and you're just paying with that. If there is a great sale, go back later when you're doing your normal shopping. If there is something adorable that you can't live without, wait until you have all the necessities that you wrote on your list and see if there's cash left over to buy it with at the end.

Another tip is that Christmas items usually go on sale right before the big day, but don't leave all of your shopping til the last minute because the shelves might have been ransacked!

We had already bought the kids' presents as well, but it's good to stick to the plan when buying those gifts. Create a budget for that, too. It doesn't have to be separate; you could combine it and make one big Christmas fund. Whichever way you go, you have to look at the overall picture of your finances and have a realistic idea of how much you can spend at this time. Shop around, look for sales, and no impulse buying! I think that's our biggest downfall. But if you can create a budget you're happy with and stay under it, you will be much more relaxed and able to enjoy Christmas without worrying about the bills.

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