Six tips for holiday shopping without breaking the bank

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2013 file photo, customers shop at a Target store in Colma, Calif.

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2013 file photo, customers shop at a Target store in Colma, Calif.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas; It's the best time of the year…” -- Burl Ives

The malls have already begun to fill with crowds eager to find the perfect gift for their loved ones and ringing in our ears is that familiar sound of Burl Ives entreating us to have a “holly, jolly Christmas.” And certainly for most, it is “the best time of the year,” but millions of Americans make plans to celebrate arguably the most holy of holidays with such voluminous spending that people may be praying for help once the credit card bills come due.

Christmas and the winter holidays of Kwanza and Hanukah last year accounted for nearly 20 percent of total annual retail sales for retailers, as people spent an average of $730 on gifts, food and all the tools necessary to deck the halls in style. According to a recent Gallup poll, American plan to supersize this year, spending even more. [pullquote]

And not just because I run a non-profit dedicated to helping people manage their finances and eliminate their debt, let me be the Scrooge who says such spending beyond the boundaries of a budget creates stress that can start the New Year on a sour note. 

Sadly, consumer debt is already up again this year, according to the Federal Reserve, with the average household carrying $15,593. Charging your celebration is never a good option.

It’s not as though anyone expects raises in the near future to cover the extravaganza. Pew researchers recently found that “for most U.S. workers, real wages — that is, after inflation is taken into account — have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been adding or subtracting jobs … after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.”

So assuming that the income you have today must support the Christmas and holiday memories you plan to make, the time is right to shop smarter. To begin:

1. Budget for the Season: The most important thing you can do to avoid a post-Christmas meltdown is to first create a budget that covers your needs and prepares for your wants. In your budget, be sure to include expenses for the gifts, the decorations as well as any travel and entertainment. In a healthy budget, annual entertainment costs should be no more than 4 to 6 percent of your net spendable income.

2. Make a list and check it twice: I can’t be the only one who sees a sale display and gets mesmerized by twinkly lights and Christmas music.  Resist spontaneous shopping by being purposeful about what you are buying, and take the time to check for sales on-line and in the flyers that have already begun to materialize. The time you spend checking for the best price puts money in your pocket.

3. Shop with Cash: If you’re holding your Christmas budget in your hand, you really can’t break the bank. Sticking with a budget is easier when you’ve literally set aside the money in envelopes marked for “Christmas Season Shopping.” Research shows that people spend 12 to 18 percent more when they shop with credit cards instead of cash.

4. Re-Gift When It Works: Comedic television has had a field day with people “caught” re-gifting, but sometimes you may already have the perfect present in your home. Look around the house before you begin the pilgrimage to your local mall.

5. Make It Yourself: Many of us have a talent in sewing, cooking, or crafts such as woodworking. Letting people know that you care about them with a gift created by you is all the more meaningful. Even making a card that conveys your heartfelt love for those in your life can create a lasting connection. Every parent knows that those handcrafted presents from children are still their favorite.

6. Consider Gifts that Nurture People’s Goals and Talents: Many of us have all the stuff we’ll ever need. Arranging for a class or a subscription to tools that can equip a loved one to develop their unique talents can provide a lifetime of enjoyment. Gift’s like Crown Connect allow for a year-round learning experience or consider some career planning through tools like Career Direct. Enable someone to look to his or her future or develop untapped skills, empowered by personal development.

It may take a little more time to plan for a holiday that doesn’t break the bank. But it’s worth it. When New Year’s day rolls around, you won’t have to make “paying off Christmas debt” your resolution and you can actually begin saving for Christmas 2015.

So, have a holly, jolly Christmas, it is the best time of the year!

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown, a non-profit business and personal finance policy and educational organization, and author of "The S.A.L.T. Plan. How to Prepare for an Economic Crisis of Biblical Proportions" and "Root of Riches, What if everything you think about money is wrong?"