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Christmas in July

What are you putting in your loved ones' stockings this year? Have you picked out the perfect wrapping paper yet? What? You haven't even thought about the holidays?

I haven't either. I'm not one of those people who has a gift closet with the perfect trinket at the ready for any unexpected holiday guests. I don't save ribbons or have my holiday card list in Excel. The people who do are the ones who coined the phrase "Christmas in July." It is they who have time on December weekends for caroling and baking cookies for office mates. Those "Christmas in July" people take long naps the day after Thanksgiving while the rest of us look for a parking space at Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) .

I want to be a "Christmas in July" person this year. You might, too, if you recall previous year's holiday highlights -- most of December spent in Ultra-Hysterical Holiday-Triage Mode.

We may be mopping our foreheads and whining about the humidity, but right now is the perfect time to dream of a white Christmas. With the average holiday gift list of 12 people, about $1,000 in spending, and nearly one-quarter of us waiting until December to shop, the air-conditioned mall is looking pretty tempting, eh?

The not-quite-Martha way
How do you have an organized, meaningful, and financially responsible holiday? I haven't a clue. That's why I stole some ideas from those "holiday gurus." After years of eye rolling, I'll concede that they're on to something. But you don't have to be an overachiever to do the holiday up right. Go ahead and modify the following advice to fit your own un-Martha personality.

Step 1.Revisit last year's expenses. Didn't keep track of last year's holiday spending? Don't worry -- your lender sure did. Dig up your old credit card statements for a horrifyingly accurate account of the December damage. You can do one of two things now: Challenge yourself to spend less, or challenge yourself to spend no more than you did last year. It should be somewhat easier with the summer sales blitzes taking place right now.

Step 2.Actually make a list of giftees. No need to write your list in pine-scented colored pencil or punch it into an Excel spreadsheet. A single sheet of paper from a legal pad and the following secret method should do:

  • Draw a line down the center of the paper.
  • Label the left-hand column "Who." As you compose your list of lucky recipients, remember to include a line for hostess gifts such as candy and froufrou liqueur. You don't want to be the cad who shows up empty-handed to Mac's "Annual Holiday Smackdown" party.
  • 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.)

Step 3.Pick a spending target and try to stick to it. Next to each gift idea, write down a target dollar figure -- pick a range and make it reasonable. Voila, your holiday scorecard. If you are facing financial hardships that you weren't last year, make sure to aim low.

Picking a spending target this far in advance will help ease credit card sticker shock, too. If it's better for your budget, spread your purchases over the next several months.

Step 4.Don't dawdle. Malls are many a budgeter's downfall. Summer sales equal summer temptations. (Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN  ) , here I come!) With list in hand, you won't be tempted to pick up a little something (or a lot of little somethings) for yourself. Even better is to avoid the bricks-and-mortar stores altogether and shop online. Put all your receipts into a single envelope, and write its location on your December calendar page so you can remember where you put it. Shopping five months ahead of time does carry the risk of your gift being too small, not cool anymore, a duplicate, or inappropriate for your now-ex boyfriend come December. If you can't return or exchange it, at least it was on sale.

5. Get something back. Go ahead and be a little selfish. Use one credit card for all your holiday purchases and rack up the miles, cash back, or whatever reward comes with your plastic. (This recommendation is only for those who pay off their balances in full each month.) Not only will you have a record of what you spent for next year, but you might get a nice check from your lender for the holidays. There are a lot of hidden perks of plastic if you use your card right.

6. Set a deadline: Don't drag it out. "Christmas in July" people know that the holidays are really about being with the ones you love. It's hard to play board games with the kids or trim the tree when you're standing in line on Dec. 24. Same goes for summer festivities. Set a firm deadline for your shopping, wrapping, and gift hiding (even if you decide to make just a few purchases each month). You'll be a hero to your family come December.

Go ahead and humor the relatives who rolled their eyes at your last-minute, curse-laden trips to Target last year. Consider becoming a "Christmas in July" person this year. I can taste the gingerbread lattes already.

More holiday cheer:

Dayana Yochim is no early bird, even for a great shoe sale. The Motley Fool disclosure policy doesn't require her to divulge what she's buying her nephew this year. (Nice try, though, Elliot.)


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