How To Survive Christmas Without Going Into Debt

As we approach yet another Christmas season when every corner we turn screams at us to spend, spend, spend, I find that I have to consciously think about lessons I’ve learned in previous years, pull them out with the decorations, and make sure they’re all front and center every time I walk out the front door.

Here are a few of the strategies I’ve used to help trim the seasonal budget back a bit:

We tell our kids that we pay Santa for the gifts he brings. This helps them to understand why some kids get more than others and why Santa’s generosity is not unlimited.

I have my kids clean out closets, drawers, shelves, and corners throughout December, explaining that nothing new is coming into the house if there’s no room for it.

We take some time to go through clothes and toys that we’ve outgrown, used up, broken, or just never really go into. We save, pitch, and donate appropriately. But at Christmas time, we take the good stuff that is perfect for donating, clean it up, and leave it under the tree Christmas Eve so that Santa can take it and give it to other children whose families can’t afford to pay Santa for their gifts.

I’ve set a ridiculously low budget this year – less than half of what I usually spend. I decided how much of that will be spent on gifts and then divided by the number of gifts I have to buy. For our kids, and our nieces and nephews, I put a simple $20 limit on each of them. This restriction actually made shopping a little more enjoyable as I had to put a little more thought into their gifts. And I am that much more excited about giving them as I was so careful to chose the one thing that I know they’ll each love.

I stopped buying all of the little dollar store and toiletry items that five kids can go through about three weeks ago. They’re currently sharing toothpaste and shampoo, pencils are sharpened to death, and they’re getting by with last year’s mitts and scarves. Things that I would normally have to buy for them anyway will all show up in their stockings.

I bought my turkey at Thanksgiving and it’s been waiting quietly in the freezer for weeks now. While I prefer the luxury of the taste of a fresh bird, I find that I prefer the low price of a turkey on sale the day after Thanksgiving! I also bought a huge 30 pound bird to make sure that we have plenty of leftover dinners for the freezer.

I’ve been stocking up on holiday treats and hors d’oeuvres for weeks now. With the regular grocery shopping, I’ve grabbed $10-$20 worth of frozen eggrolls and potstickers, nuts, cookies, and chips on my travels. Sure, keeping the kids out of the treasure trove of treats has been a bit of a challenge. But looking at my budget for the big Christmas shop next week, I think I’m going to easily beat my bottom line.

In the end, I’m finding that trimming my budget not only saves a lot of money, but it drastically reduces the stress of the season. I’m looking forward to a house full of company and loud kids and family. I’ll be able to watch them enjoy Christmas. Instead of watching them eat through my wallet!

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and my the holiday season bring you the joys of peace and love.

See you in January!

Stretching That Food Budget

And another Thanksgiving has come and gone. I’m so glad we have a 2-1/2 month stretch until Christmas turkey!

But I think I aced the meal this year. Though we only had eight for dinner, I went ahead and invested in a thirty pound turkey. At $0.88 a pound the week before the long weekend, I only paid about $25 for it. I have a huge roaster, and this thing filled it.

I’ve gone over the border and paid about that much for a turkey in the past, but with gas prices and border wait times, I gave up the practice long ago. What I opted for this year was a cheaper utility turkey – might be missing a wing or a drumstick, but still has quality meat and will go for a much lower price.

On the table, it looked great, tasted fabulous, and everyone ate ’til they couldn’t eat no more.

After dinner though, I got my money’s worth. I served out ten more full dinners into reusable containers and loaded up the freezer with them. Then I still had an extra large bowl of meat scraps, vegetables, and roasted potatoes that I covered in gravy and left in the fridge. The husband and kids have been dipping into that over the past couple days and with the half bowl that’s left now, I’ll roll out a crust using Pilsbury crescent rolls onto a flat baking pan and cover it with the rest of the leftovers, making one (well, actually, two) big turkey pies. That’ll be Sunday dinner next week. By then, everybody’s turkey’d out for a while.

The dinners are there if anyone needs a turkey fix. And I fed the entire family – a total of 38 full dinners – for about $40. Including the COSTCO $5.99 pumpkin pie.

Can’t beat that.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Budgeting Must-Have: Bill Payment Schedule

Oh how I do love back to school. The kids are settled in, the routines are falling back into place. The dog has resumed his lazy day schedule.

This is the time of year I start looking forward. I find that my budget always seems to need some housekeeping right about now, and I’ve been looking through my files and tweaking a bit to make sure things run smoothly into the new year.

The first thing I did, was to review all of my bills. I’ve gone through them, updated them on my ‘Budget Sheet’, including amounts owing, monthly payments, and, in particular, the bills’ due dates. I always try to have a plan for paying my bills before they arrive. If my VISA bill comes in on the fifth, and is due on the 25th, I want to be ready for it. If I haven’t received the bill by the 10th, I go looking for it. And I make sure that my ‘due date’ for paying that bill is always at least 3-4 days ahead of the bill’s due date. This allows for my payment to actually get to the creditor on time. Paying bills late, by even two days, can leave a mark on my credit score. It takes one or two late payments to show up, and another twelve to twenty-four to correct it. And the whole time that late payment is showing on my credit rating, the company is charging me a higher interest rate. Watch for this; it’s important.

So once I’ve double checked that all of my payments are going to get to where they need to be on time, I transfer all of the dates on to a calendar. Some years the calendar is a list. Sometimes a notebook. And some years the calendar is just that: a calendar. One that I picked up from the car mechanic or the bank. I mark on the next few months which bills get paid – “Pay VISA” on the 20th, for example. And I put a big red ‘X’ through them as I go.

I make sure that weekends and holidays are accounted for. If my payment date falls on a Sunday, I make sure that I mark it on the calendar for the Friday before. I might be able to pay the bill online on Sunday, but the bank won’t clear it until Monday. I want to avoid setting deadlines on weekends and holidays.

This planning helps to trigger my memory when the date comes to make a payment. I can see ahead a few days and make a mental note that the next time I have to pay attention to my budget is next Tuesday, when I have to pay the hydro bill.

This is a great tool for my peace of mind. Once my plan is in place, I can go for days without having to focus on my finances. What a relief to be able to live my days without wondering if that cable bill needs to be paid. I know that I still have three days before I have to pay attention to anything. I can check on the cable bill then.

It’s a little tedious at first. And certainly, the more payments I have, the more complicated – and necessary – this little trick is. But it is worth the effort in the simple decrease in stress I feel over the constant vigil over my finances.

Do the prep. Take a break. Let your planning replace your panic. You’ll be glad you did.