Make a list: Group all of your gift recipients into tiers. “Tier one can be members of your family, tier two those who get a smaller gift, and tier three those who don’t have to get a gift,” recommends Ben Hecht of the nonprofit lifestyle and personal-finance site, thebeehive.org.
Set dollar limits: Designate an amount for each group (say, $20 for tier two), and tally them for your total budget.
Don’t forget nongift expenses: Entertaining or buying a new party outfit takes money, too. By tracking spending, you’re less likely to let expenses spiral out of control.
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Four Weeks to Go: Coordinate Travel
Coordinate group trips: If your extended family is planning to travel for the holidays, build a Facebook group page where you can share info on the latest travel deals. Having a central location for trip details also cuts down on costly back-and-forth phone calls and in-box-clogging e-mails.
Sidestep booking fees. Purchase tickets on airline websites to avoid booking fees. Otherwise you might pay up to $20 at the ticketing office or up to $10 when you call the airline (exceptions are JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, which don’t charge such fees). Travel sites, too, charge nonrefundable booking fees when the same low fares can often be found on the airline’s site.
Get wheels for a steal. If you plan to rent a car, check out price quotes from local independent car-rental agencies, which can be well below the big guys’ prices.
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Three Weeks to Go: Start Shopping
Use cash: When they charge purchases, consumers tend to spend 30 percent more than if they use cash, according to Robert McKinley of Cardweb.com. “Cash makes people think twice or buy sale items,” he says. If you prefer credit cards, use the one with the lowest interest rate. Or pay by debit or check card. But some banks deduct anywhere from 10 cents to $1.50 from your checking account every time you make a purchase with a debit card (check with your bank to find out if it charges a fee), so you might want to avoid using that card.
Get paid to spend: The online-coupon site fatwallet.com offers cash back when you make purchases with partnered vendors through its website. Search for coupons and promotions at your favorite retailers and, if they’re FatWallet partners, sign up to receive cash rebates. Rebates build up in your FatWallet account, and when you’re ready to cash in, request a check (minimum of $10) or get cash back via PayPal.
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Three Weeks to Go: Get Creative With Gifts
Regift with a twist: You could cash in unwanted gift cards to buy presents for others, but what to do if your gift card is from Victoria’s Secret and your recipient is named Jeff? Exchange it for another at swapagift.com. For a $4 fee, trade yours in for one from another retailer, then use the new card to buy a gift for your recipient. You can also sell gift cards on the site for cash.
Buy one big family gift: Instead of spending a bundle on lots of small gifts, save your money for a trip later in the year. Put a map or a travel brochure in your kids’ stockings, plus give an inexpensive gift they can use once they get there―new bathing suit or flip-flops for the beach, for example―to build excitement. And let them help plan the vacation itinerary so they feel involved.
Give a first-class gift: You don’t have the frequent-flier miles to send your parents or best friend on a first-class trip, but you might have enough to bump up the class level on a leg or two of a journey they plan to take in the next few months. A one-way upgrade typically requires 15,000 miles, so at about a penny per frequent-flier mile, you’ve given a gift worth $150 that you didn’t spend money to buy.
Consider a group gift: Buying presents for your brother’s family can be difficult, not to mention pricey. Gift memberships to a local museum or zoo can cost the same as two or three individual gifts. For example, the San Diego Museum of Art offers an annual “Household” membership for $65, which includes four guest passes and a 10 percent store discount. That beats the onetime regular cost of $12 per adult and $4.50 per child. The Bronx Zoo costs a family of five $63 for one visit. But for $120, the zoo offers an annual membership that includes 16 passes to special attractions and a 10 percent store and restaurant discount. Bonus: Part of that price may be tax-deductible. To find a zoo or a museum near your gift recipient, consult museumspot.com.
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Two Weeks to Go: Organize Finances and Shipping
Shop around for postage: Before you head to the nearest shipping company to send packages, compare rates online.
Get what you’re owed: In the end-of-the-year haze, consumers may forget to retrieve money due them, whether it’s funds from an employer’s transportation reimbursement program, a flexible-spending account, or a gym reimbursement from a health-insurance provider. Don’t leave money on the table: Submit the necessary paperwork (usually receipts and forms from your employer’s benefits department) for cash relief when January bills arrive.
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Two Weeks to Go: Make Gifts
A homemade gift doesn’t have to be a strain on your time, patience, or bank account. A few ideas:
Vanilla sugar: A simple hostess gift that requires nothing more than combining a vanilla bean and one pound of granulated sugar in an airtight container and letting it sit for a week or two. The cost? About $6.
Beauty scrub: Blend a cup each of oats and almonds and a tablespoon of baking soda in a food processor, suggests Nava Lubelski, author of The Starving Artist’s Way: Easy Projects for Low-Budget Living (Three Rivers Press, $4, amazon.com). “I add a note that says to mix with water for a great facial,” she says.
A journal: Start one for her, with favorite quotations or an entry about a shared memory.
Decorate on a dime. Lara Shriftman, coauthor of Party Confidential (Bulfinch Press, $30, amazon.com), suggests creating a candy bar. “Fill various sizes and shapes of glassware with red candy and set them on a tray as a centerpiece,” she says. “You can put Red Hots or peppermints in small round bowls, red and white M&M’s in glasses, or licorice in vases. It’s chic, creative, and inexpensive.” And it’s edible.
Keep it basic. Get creative with gift tags―ticket stubs, playing cards from an incomplete deck, and paper coasters from a local watering hole don’t cost a thing. Use a hole punch and attach them to gifts with ribbon or tape. Or don’t use tags at all: Wrap presents in white paper and arm your kids with crayons or markers to write the recipients’ names all over their packages.
Give a gift certificate. Still stuck on what to get your neighbors or the drivers from car pool? Try giftcertificates.com. Its SuperCertificates can be personalized, have no maintenance fees or expiration dates, and are accepted by hundreds of well-known merchants.