By Priya Malani

Published on November 22, 2017

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Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—and it’s also the most expensive. Just as you’re settling into the season of cozy fires and comfy sweaters, you realize that it’s time to put down the cocoa and get shopping. But the thought of facing the crowds and trying to find the perfect Christmas gifts while not draining your bank account can leave you totally overwhelmed and stressed out.

While I can’t help you figure out what to buy your sister who returns everything you’ve ever gotten her (but here are some suggestions), I can help with the budget part. Read on for a list of our holiday shopping tips and hacks so you can buy all the gifts on your list without putting stress on your wallet.

1. Make a list

Take a cue from Santa: Make a list and check it twice. People who shop with lists spend on average 10 to 15 percent less than the list-less. Considering that the projected holiday spend per person is $967.13 for 2017, we’re talking about a savings of almost $150!

Before using lists, my “strategy” was to go to from store to store and buy things vivre dans l’instant—sometimes with people in mind and sometimes without, just in case I forgot someone—but it’s very easy to overspend this way. Instead, make a list of who you want to buy for; don’t forget family pets, your mail carrier, the staff if you live in a building, etc.

2. Estimate the cost

Do you have gift ideas in mind yet? If not, get on that! If so, jot down potential presents next to the appropriate recipient on your holiday shopping list and note how much will those gifts cost. Even a range of what you plan to spend on each person is a good start. Don’t forget to include monetary gifts like holiday tips for building staff.

Now add those numbers up. It might be scary to see that total at first, but having this information at your fingertips is essential so you can decide if you have that much to spend in the first place. Is it more or less than you can afford? Adjust accordingly.

Bonus Hack:

If you want to take this to the next level, create two columns for spend: expected and actual. If you spend less on some people, that might provide a few extra dollars to splurge on others, or justify that mid-shopping break mani/pedi. Keep a running total of where you’re at.

3. Use gift cards

If you’re unsure where to start shopping, let your gift cards lead the way. Using “free money” is a great way to knock out a few gifts without any strain on your wallet. Whether you returned something and got store credit that you never used or you traded in some credit card rewards points for cold hard cash, that’s a great place to start.

4. Procrastinate (a little bit)

In certain cases, snagging last-minute sales can save you big. But you’ve been doing this long enough to know where you can and can’t take this risk (read: do not wait to buy your best friend the new Huda Desert Dusk eyeshadow palette which is likely to sell out!). But don’t forget about Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals—sometimes the early bird deals are the best you’ll find all season.

5. Go dutch

Consider going in on a gift with a family member or friend which might allow you to stretch your dollars further.

6. Gift an experience 

Many of us are opting for experiences over gifts these days. Get everyone together and do something that results in a memory building moment and a fabulous photo for Instagram.

7. Use technology

There are dozens of apps to help you shop these days, from Wunderlist, which keeps your shopping list organized to the Thinkover Chrome plug-in which alerts you when items on your list go on sale. Find the ones that work for you.

8. Start planning for next year now

Finally, while getting organized and having a game plan are solid steps to avoid overspending at the holidays, even better is saving up in advance. Here’s what we do with our clients at Stash Wealth. Open up a savings account at an online bank (we like Ally and CapitalOne360) and nickname it “Holiday Gifts.”

Next, approximate how much you typically spend at the holidays. For example, let’s say that number is $1,500. In this case, we would suggest setting up an automatic transfer from your checking account into your Holiday Gifts account the day after payday (twice a month for most of us) in the amount of $62.50. By siphoning off your savings little by little, you will be ready to spend when the holidays roll around. Start this in January of each year!

By now, you’re probably feeling like a holiday shopping boss. You have the information you need to make informed spending decisions so you aren’t just flying by the seat of your pants. If you still end up overspending, it won’t come as a surprise. If you’re feeling stressed that you don’t have enough to buy everything you had in mind, do your best and remember that no one expects you to go into credit card debt for their gifts, so be true to your situation. Finally, begin planning now for next year.

See more gift hacks that will save you money:

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