First, like Santa, I made a list. Last year I used this spreadsheet from Lifehacker, and it worked so well that I added a new sheet (copying over the formulas from Gift List, and then changing the name of the sheet referenced for the Gift Info formulas) and brought it back this year. I wrote down all the people that I wanted to give gifts to (and also tossed in the three birthdays during December and January -- I refuse to make a holiday gift do double duty) and ideas for what to get them.
I also set a budget. Your budget is up to you -- what you can afford and what you think is appropriate. As a student with many savings goals, I found it best to minimize spending, so I discussed having a small Christmas with my sweetie a couple months ago. We'll still travel to see my family, but we skipped decorating our place this year. (The apartment really doesn't have room for a tree, anyway.) It's also understood that we'll give each other one or two smaller gifts, and nothing extravagant. This is a tradeoff for having the wedding we want next year -- and living debt-free in general.
The next step was to select gifts for each person. There are two basic approaches -- knowing exactly what to get someone and searching for the best price, or seeing what is out there and deciding whether a good deal would also make a good gift. I looked at my family's gift lists, which was easy because my cousin created a database that catalogues each person's wishes and who (if anyone) has signed up to give that gift, and keeps that information hidden from the recipient (but visible to others so there's no overlap) until after delivery. As I come across things I covet during the year, I add them to my eGiveIt list (making sure to update before my birthday and before the holidays). Others on my list had Amazon wishlists (like this one I'm shamelessly plugging for my Read Aloud program). I subtly (and not so subtly -- some of them were tough to hint to!) quizzed friends who don't have such a list. And I looked at a lot of the holiday promotional emails -- more than I usually would -- to see what was on sale. Although I'm in the demographic that doesn't take kindly to stores pushing Christmas decorations and carols before Thanksgiving, I'm up for a deep discount any time of year!
You've still got time, and the sales have just begun. Next weekend is actually a great time to shop, because retailers will have an excess of stock that wasn't sold on Black Friday. Why not make a plan and get your own list out of the way?
Tips that made the shopping manageable:
-Shop online for almost everything. You can compare prices easily and find promotional codes to lighten the load. If you're bundling several gifts off of one site (like Amazon!), you might get free shipping. And there's none of that frantic shoving or standing in long lines while "The Little Drummer Boy" pounds out a solo in your skull.
-Conversely, shop in person if it benefits you. I placed my order with The Container Store online, and instead of paying for shipping (or adding stuff I don't really need to the cart in order to qualify for free shipping) I picked up the order (one large bag) at a nearby store. It was quick, easy, and inexpensive. I also considered visiting a Bed Bath & Beyond store on the way to my folks for Friday Thanksgiving, because while I had a coupon for 20% off of one item online, in-store items were 20% off the whole order. I ended up finishing my list without needing Bed Bath & Beyond, but it would have been a good deal if I were making multiple purchases there.
-Hit the sales. This seems like common sense, right? Why pay more for a gift if the retailer will give you a discount? Just take your list with you and don't get sidetracked by stuff you don't need. See an excellent sale that you just can't pass up? Look at the remaining names on your list and really consider whether they'd like one of whatever it is. Have a Buy-One-Get-One-Free offer? If you want to purchase one anyway, why not donate the second to a charity collection? Take a look at Groupon and other group discount sites to see whether any of those deals would be good gifts -- I swear there are ways to do that without looking cheap. I just found Yipit, an aggregator site for many of those deals, and I am in love! One email; one daily browse of the site -- easy!
-Use your gift cards. Does anyone else end up with gift cards from LAST Christmas in their wallet during this year's shopping? (Quite a few of us, says a recent Consumer Reports poll.) Somehow this happens to me -- and even a small balance remaining is a couple bucks less in cash outlay. Let the cards you have direct your shopping. I had been hanging onto an Amazon gift card I won in a contest at work in January -- since I'll have to pay taxes on it (at the "bonus" level, too!), I wanted to use it for something special. It knocked down an already incredible Black Friday discount to a price I'd happily spend on a special Christmas present.
-Watch your wallet. Check your total spent frequently against your budget to avoid nasty surprises. The spreadsheet helped me with that. I came in
-Pad your budget. I set a total spending goal lower than the actual amount I had set aside, so that those little unexpected expenses (a couple of batches of Christmas cookies, a donation to a toy drive, the perfect stocking stuffer) don't sink the plan.
-Save all year. Those funds came from a special ING account I started after being hit by a credit card bill last January that was larger than I'd planned for. (No one's perfect! I have my share of bad financial habits.) Socking away a small amount every week through automated transfers means that I don't notice the loss, and there's a set amount I have as a basis for my holiday spending, even if day-to-day expenses in November and December run high. If you forgot to start early, try this trick: If you are paid bi-weekly, there will be a couple of months in the year where you have three paydays instead of two. Set aside one of the "extra" paychecks for holiday expenses.
-Reap any rewards. Even though I had the cash on hand, I chose to pay for nearly all my purchases with a credit card, for a couple of good reasons. I just opened a Chase Freedom Card, which came with a special cash-back reward for spending a certain amount in the first three months. It also offers a higher percentage of cash-back rewards on certain categories of spending. When the statement cycle is complete, I'll know how much to transfer from my holiday savings to pay for my holiday spending -- anything left over will stay in the account for next year. While I don't support a credit-based economy, I think that there are smart ways to use credit. Paying the balance off in full every month to avoid paying interest is the biggest one. Choosing the right card for your financial lifestyle and maximizing its benefits -- whether that's in miles, cash back, or discounts -- are others.
Most importantly, once you have finished filling your list, STOP. This is a hard one for me; I tend to second-guess my gift selections. But just think of it -- you have your hard work out of the way, and now you can relax! Use some of the extra savings to enjoy the season: go to a holiday concert or movie, get some hot chocolate, treat a friend to dinner and catch up. Babysit for someone who has shopping left to do -- or be a real hero and take the kids to sit on Santa's lap. Wrap the presents that come in the mail (I've banned my sweetie from opening packages for the last month). Listen to carols if you must -- but make them good. Plan your 2012 goals. Try not to feel too smug when you see harried shoppers rushing through the streets.