FOOL ON THE HILL

6 Holiday Survival Tips

Do away with aggravation, and, most importantly, overspending this holiday season. Use this 1040 EZ Guide to avoid the costly pitfalls of this officially sanctioned shopping season. Dayana Yochim shares six rules.

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By Dayana Yochim (TMF School)
November 11, 2002

You have a life. I know you do. Like me, you're going to do all of your shopping and holiday preparations no sooner than four days before Christmas.

Retailers love our kind. Our disorganization, frustration, guilt, and sheer panic fetch top dollar as we sift through the dregs of sweater sets, CDs, and festively packaged mixed nuts, looking for that perfect item that conveys our love and thoughtfulness. 

Let's not let them win this year. Consider following these six rules for surviving the holidays -- a sort of 1040 EZ form for holiday procrastinators like me. They focus on the issues that traditionally lead to the most aggravation and overspending. But you can tailor these rules to your own circumstances, depending on your holiday avoidance skill level.

1. Actually make a list of giftees: Yes, I stole this one from one of those "holiday gurus" who have their own glossy magazine. After years of eye rolling, I'll concede she's onto something. But I'm not going to write my list in pine-scented color pencil -- or even bother punching it into an Excel spreadsheet. I'm using a single sheet of paper from a legal pad. Let me share my secret method here:

  1. Draw a line down the center of the paper.
  2. Label the left-hand column "Who." As you compose your list of lucky recipients, remember to include a line for hostess gifts, like candy and frou-frou liqueur. You don't want to be the cad who shows up empty-handed to Mac's "Annual Holiday Smackdown" party.
  3. Label the right-hand column "What." Jot down a few gift ideas. ("Clothing" is not an option for the children on your list, unless you are the child's parent.)
  4. Extra credit: In parentheses, write down a target dollar figure by each gift -- pick a range, and make it reasonable. If you're feeling particularly compelled, you can create an entirely new column for this piece of data.

2. Pick a spending target, and try to stick to it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not telling you to assign a cold-hearted dollar figure to your love. I'm just suggesting you cap it. A good rule of thumb is your gift expenditures should be less than your monthly mortgage payment. As incentive, every bit I save on gifts by spending less than the allotted amount goes toward a lovely December parting gift for myself.

Here are a few other considerations as you tackle the holiday budgeting process:

  • If you're going to spend big, do it on the kids. After all, this holiday is tailor-made for tikes and those who want to secure themselves as The Favorite Aunt. Too many kids on your Christmas list? You don't want to break the bank, so it's time to pick a favorite. (Just kidding.)

  • Use your employee discount. Sure, seeing pop-up ads for TMF Money Advisor every time I check the site has gotten a little old. But that doesn't mean I should disqualify it from the gift list. If you've got good stuff at your place of employment -- and you can get your hands on it for a song and know someone will really appreciate your life's labor -- go ahead and complete some holiday shopping during the hours of 9 to 5. Your boss won't mind if you're padding the company bottom line.

  • When in doubt, buy a Polaroid camera. No, I don't own stock in Polaroid (thank goodness). But man, do I love this gift! It's ready to use right out of the box and provides instant gratification. And you don't have to worry about the cost of film after the first pack you provide. (It comes out to about a buck a picture.) It's truly a fun gift. I have three.

3. Save your sanity and your budget -- shop online. Malls are my downfall. I don't mind the crowds and even have a weakness for unremitting Christmas Muzak. But I've come to the realization that avoiding bricks-and-mortar stores -- especially during this officially sanctioned shopping season -- will have the biggest impact on my budget. It's just too easy to pick up a few pairs of shoes I "need" while shopping for "someone else" at a mall. An added bonus with online shopping: gift wrapping. Card. Shipping. Click. Click. Click. Done. Done. And done. 

4. Use one credit card for all holiday purchases. Ever notice how lenders are sticklers when it comes to tracking your spending? I've decided to let them keep my books this year. (This recommendation is only for those who pay off their balances in full each month.) If my obsessive organization momentum carries through to next year, I'll have a record of what I shelled out, and will be able to plan accordingly. And there's the remote chance of not buying the same item for my brother two years in a row.

5. Put the kibosh on homemade crafts. Handmade gifts are nice in theory but aggravating and expensive in practice -- especially when you've got a tight deadline. Holiday procrastinators like me should steer clear. I have one friend who spent $350 on card-making supplies -- rubber stamps, hole punchers, embossing powder, inkpads, and crimping scissors. I've received exactly one handmade card from her. (It was adorable, but I swear there were blood spatters on it.) The most complex I hope to get this holiday season is a "home sachet making kit." It consists of scooping the lavender petals into ready-made cotton drawstring pouches. This 23 seconds of gift-making fulfills my inner crafter.

6. Spend time on the sentiment. After all, that's what the holidays are really all about. Long after the acrylic sweater shrinks in the wash and the mixed nuts have been re-gifted, your loved ones will still have your thoughtful card to remember you by. Tell the people you love about your fondest memory of them from the previous year. Let them know how they add to your life. Reveal to them your hopes for the new year. Slip 'em a Polaroid of your new couch. If I save all the cards that friends and family have given me, I figure a few other folks do, too.

Dayana Yochim owns no companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool disclosure policy doesn't require her to divulge what she's buying her nephew this year. (Nice try, though, Elliot.)