The holidays are coming. Is your wallet ready?

By Andrew Housser

The winter holiday season is just around the corner. Snowfall and crackling Yule logs might seem far away right now, but they will be here in just a few months. 

The holidays are a time for fun, family, friends and thoughtfully counting blessings. But for many people, they wind up being a time of counting something far less pleasant: overextended finances and credit card charges. In 2015, more than a third of people who made a holiday budget spent more than they had planned, according to a Consumer Reports survey. That spending can really add up. Average holiday spending in 2016 was more than $750 per person, a Gallup poll found.

Now is the time to plan your holiday strategy. Try these 11 week-by-week steps to carry you to the holidays:

Week 1: Make a plan. Make a list of all anticipated holiday expenses, beginning with everyone you will be giving to and what you would like to give them. Tally the approximate cost. Remember to include gifts for teachers and tips for the pet groomer, hairstylist and others who help you during the year. Then take an honest look at your budget. Can you afford everything on your list? If not, scale back.

Week 2: Refrain from non-essential spending. For at least a week, promise yourself that you will not spend money on extras at the grocery store, clothing, dining out, alcohol, travel or entertainment that costs money. Cutting out excess spending can build a holiday fund quickly.

Week 3: Start shopping early. Extra time will gives you more opportunities to save money, from coupons to cashing in credit card rewards. Deep-discount shoppers might watch for the perfect items on clearance, at thrift stores or on eBay. Others might use the time to make some gifts.

Week 4: Spend rewards instead of cash. You might have a stash of accumulated rewards on your credit card. Or you may have a jar of coins at home to turn in for gift cards. If you use phone or computer apps such as Ibotta, Swagbucks or Shopkick, you could be building rewards points. Create a plan to invest these rewards in holiday gifts.

Week 5: Check for deals online. With your detailed shopping list and budget, you can keep an eye on Internet bargains. Be sure to follow safe practices. Only shop at secure sites, and change your passwords frequently to keep your information as safe as possible. Search for promotion codes or visit reliable deal sites. As a bonus, online shopping can help you resist in-store displays that could tempt you into impulse buying.

Week 6: Plan ahead if you are not traveling. If your budget is tight, you might need to skip holiday travel. But that doesn’t mean you cannot celebrate with loved ones. Send gifts with ample time for them to arrive. Try putting a video call on everyone’s calendar and using a free web conferencing app to watch each other open gifts.

Week 7: Brainstorm free TLC. Handmade gifts showcase the thought and care you put into the recipient’s gift – without burdening your credit card. Perhaps you can create something from materials you already have. Or you can offer a stocking-stuffer coupon pack for family members. Some people might appreciate it if you detailed their car, deep-cleaned their camper or pampered their pet.

Week 8: Skip credit card debt. As Black Friday and the heat of the shopping season approaches, take a look at what you have saved already, and what you expect to save during the next few weeks. Revisit your budget before you reach for your wallet for purchases. Consider using cash or a debit card instead of credit. Your promise to yourself is to charge no more than you can pay off in full and on time each month.

Week 9: Eat in. On average, Americans spend $2,600 per year in restaurants. That is approximately $50 per week, per person. Challenge yourself to eat in. This week could be a good time to start, as you might benefit from a fridge full of Thanksgiving leftovers. Channeling your savings into your holiday fund could amount to $200 per person in your household over the next four weeks. As a bonus, most at-home meals are healthier than eating out.

Week 10: Double-check your gifting strategy. If you ended up spending too much on Black Friday, return the things you don’t need. Review your budget and gift list, and make sure it’s reasonable for your situation.

Week 11: Take advantage of Free Shipping Day. If you have not already finished your shopping by Friday, Dec. 15, check More than 1,000 retailers will participate.

Keep this list handy as the holidays approach, and you likely will be able to find a way to minimize debt-repayment headaches after the new year – while maximizing holiday fun.

Andrew Housser is co-founder and CEO of Freedom Financial Network. The family of companies, providing innovative solutions that empower people to live healthier financial lives, includes Freedom Debt Relief and Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.

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