It's three months until January's credit card statements arrive, and that might be just enough time to make the sight of the envelope a little less scary. Now's the time to start thinking about getting a handle on your holiday spending.
Sketch some rough numbers on the back of an envelope and begin thinking about the places where you're apt to go just a little crazy. I, for example, can't walk into a Borders
Here are some other pitfalls I've seen on the path to holiday sanity:
Perfection. I've rarely wandered through the mall asking myself, "Where do I find that adequate, mediocre, bargain gift?" When I go out shopping, I'm looking for the "perfect" gift -- the gift that will be remembered forever and set a new standard for thoughtfulness and generosity. And, if I have to spend an extra $20 or $30 for all that goodwill, it's worth it. Right?
Chasing a perfect holiday can be really expensive, and this is a trap I'm always defending myself against. Seeking the perfect gift, perfect holiday meal, perfect decorations, perfect office party outfit, and perfect animated lawn ornament can really add up. It can also make you a little crazy. Perfection is not a realistic standard unless you're living in a Martha Stewart magazine and have a staff of hundreds. That doesn't mean you can't strive for a fun and meaningful holiday.
Procrastination. It's happened to me, too. One day you look up, and it's Dec. 23 already. Darn it! I'd been meaning to get around to that holiday budget, but I had to order the Thanksgiving turkey, send cards, shop for gifts, bake cookies, plan the New Year's Eve party. I just never got around to it!
It's really hard to stick to a spending plan you never had. Make one now. It doesn't have to be perfect (see previous item). Look at last year's spending if you have time to pull out the checkbook register or credit card statements. Otherwise, make a rough guess of your probable spending and add it up.
Panic. Standing in a packed Best Buy
Proliferation. Are there dozens of people on your gift list? Do you hand out presents to everyone from the school bus driver to your accountant? Maybe it's time to pare back the giving just a little. We give some gifts year after year out of obligation, without stopping to think about whether they're really necessary. Some people might be just as touched by a thoughtful card with a handwritten note of appreciation.
Gifts exchanged among adults might be another place to look at cutting back. Instead of giving to every one of your girlfriends, arrange a swap so everyone gives one gift and receives one gift. That might work with some relatives, too. Or send a fruitcake. That'll get the message across.
Parties. For a couple years, I'd get to January and have a pretty good handle on my gift spending but still wonder where an extra $100 or $200 went. Then I figured it out. I was hosting Thanksgiving dinner, bringing wine to every Christmas and New Year's Eve party, and baking extra cookies to give away. I forgot the food! Don't forget the food.
(Needle)point. You bought piles of supplies to knit or quilt or macrame gifts for everyone this year. Now it's two days before you're supposed to hand out these gifts, and all you've got is a pile of yarn and fabric and one half-formed sock. It's time to run out to Wal-Mart and buy gifts for everyone on your list.
Congratulations, you've now bought gifts twice. Handmade gifts can be wonderful presents, and often economical, but make sure you give yourself a realistic amount of time to get them done.
Perspective. Will your kids really hate you forever if Santa doesn't deliver every last thing on their wish list? Is the joy of giving so important that you should be giving to the credit card companies well into the summer? Will anyone notice they got the same card this year as they did last year?
There's just enough space between holidays that we almost forget that they come around every year. This won't be the last Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Christmas you'll ever celebrate. Keep that in mind when you're tempted to go overboard.
Penguins. They don't really have any effect on your holiday budget, but I think they're cute. They put me in a holiday mood.
Related holiday Foolishness:
Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple does not own shares of any stock mentioned in this article. She would love to hear your tips for keeping holiday spending under control, or any other feedback. The Fool has a very festive disclosure policy.