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If You’re Avoiding Holiday Budgeting, Read This

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While there’s no doubt that ‘tis the season to be jolly, ‘tis also the season to overspend. Between the gifting, holiday travel, and seasonal decor, and festive attire, expenses can definitely add up, often without even realizing it. And, more often than not, holiday budgeting is not something many consider but, according to financial experts, you definitely should.

“What’s really important [this time of year] is knowing your money personality — are you a spender or a saver?” says Keri Danielski, consumer expert for Mint and Turbo. “If you know that you’re a spender, then a budget is a good idea to keep yourself organized and together during the holiday season. If you’re a saver, and naturally frugal when buying gifts, then you may not need as strict of a budget. Regardless of what lane you’re in, budgets can help prepare you for the holidays and relieve the stress that can come with spending more than usual in a short time period.”

A financial strategy can also help alleviate stress that inevitably comes from the last-minute scramble that are the final weeks of December. You know the one: Where you’re frantically running a marathon around town, bouncing from stores, post offices, and every holiday party on your calendar. So often, one racks up a laundry list of expenses from sheer desperation and necessity (here’s looking at you, express shipping fees). “The biggest spending mistakes usually arise from a sense of urgency created by a lack of planning,” says Jamie Ebersole, financial adviser and CEO of Ebersole Financial LLC. “Last-minute shopping rarely delivers positive results for anyone. By planning in advance you can set a budget that works for you and won't break the bank.”

So how exactly does one keep the festive spirit high and the costs low this year? Well, for starters, you can take the sage advice of these financial experts and get yourself on some kind of spending plan. Ahead, four crucial tips for saving some dough amidst the holiday extravaganza that is the winter season.

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Plan For Unexpected Expenses

Even if you’ve made your list, checked it twice, and have all of your holiday planning down to a science, the universe has a way of throwing a fun curveball your way every year, right? This time around, give the universe a run for its money, and plan for all the random little expenses that might pop up.

In terms of out-of-town-travel, this could come in the form of every plane-catcher’s favorite word: delays. “A great way to plan ahead when it comes to canceled, or even delayed flights is to have extra airline points saved up that you can use to get you and your loved ones home,” advises Danielski. “If you don’t have airlines miles, patience is the name of the game — rather than splurge on a new flight, talk to the airline or gate agent to see what time the next flight is leaving and ask if you can be rebooked. Additionally, having a travel-friendly credit card with rewards programs can help supplement the cost and provide some travel perks to help get you home safe just in time for the caroling.” (Oh, and pet-lovers should also budget for dog-sitting services while you’re traveling, which aren’t always cheap.)

And if you’re staying local, don’t worry — you’re still subject to your own round of added costs, particularly if you’re hosting any festivities. “If you’re the one hosting a dinner or cocktail party, you have to make sure you’ve budgeted for any surprise guests who show up,” says Danielski. “A good rule of thumb is to have everyone bring at least one dish to share or a bottle of their favorite wine. Another way to think ahead is to anticipate last minute guests and budget for at least two to three extra people.”

Even if you’re not hosting, things like extra babysitting services to cover your holiday party-going, higher energy bill (courtesy of holiday lights), postage for greeting cards, and rush shipping fees for late orders can all quickly chip away at your bank account, says Andrea Woroch, consumer savings and personal finance expert.

One more incredibly important (and often overlooked) thing to prepare for this season? Life. "Just because it’s the holidays […] doesn’t mean that everyday life stops,” says Danielski. “Your car could break down. You might have to take an unexpected trip. Something in your home might need to be repaired. Having an emergency fund, especially around the holidays, can give you some much needed cushion and wiggle room for when those life moments happen.”

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Be Strategic About Your Gifting

Holiday shopping lists are most likely the main thing you actually do budget for, but even then things come up. That perfect gift you were planning on gifting your best friend (and budgeted for) is sold out. You have to get something for your boss, who’s virtually impossible to shop for. There’s always a glitch even in the best laid shopping plans.

That’s why Woroch says starting early is always the first rule of thumb when it comes to holiday shopping. “Those who wait until the last minute to buy gifts get stressed about finding the perfect one and are more likely to overspend since they have limited options and limited time to comparison shop or look for deals,” she explains.

Also, limiting yourself to physical presents is not always the way to go, especially in this day and age. “Happiness studies repeatedly show that experiences, not things, are what people truly value,” says Danielski. “Experiences as gifts needn’t be pricey or extravagant. Gift an activity that you and the recipient would enjoy — but wouldn’t have the guts to do alone, like a cooking class or salsa lesson, workout class or adventurous hike.”

Another thing to note is that there’s often safety — and savings — in numbers. “You can give more meaningful presents and spend less by opting to go in on a gift with someone else or with a group,” says Woroch. Those with multiple siblings can go in on a larger gift for a parent. You can also rally your co-workers together to gift your boss or head of office.

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Don’t Be Afraid (Or Ashamed) To Get Thrifty

So often, one equates a truly stellar gift with an equally astounding price tag, which is a very common (and costly) mistake many make year after year. Just because something is inexpensive, doesn’t mean it’s not going to wow the receiver. A little research and thoughtfulness can go a long way when shopping for your loved ones. “The best gifts need not be expensive, but they should be meaningful to the receiver,” says Ebersole. “A little thought upfront goes a long way to making a gift memorable. The biggest expense we have in gift-giving is spending a lot of money for things that people don't need or won't really appreciate.”

That said, once you’ve narrowed down the perfect gift, don’t be afraid to put your thrifty hat on and do a little comparison shopping. “Retailers believe that once you’re in the door, you won’t bother to look for a better deal online or in a different store,” says Danielski. “When buying gifts for the holidays, consider downloading a comparison app to use when shopping in stores to see if there’s a better deal out there. Given the holiday timing, you never know when a 24-hour flash sale could hit.”

Another way to cut costs on gifts is by doing it yourself — literally. “Make them gifts with a personal touch,” suggests Danielski. “You can source ideas and inspiration online with websites like Pinterest, and also find low-cost gift ideas through Etsy.”

Use A Budgeting Tool To Keep You On Track

At the end of the day, as well-meaning as you may be, your brain and will to save can only take you so far. That’s why a budgeting tool can be your best friend around the holidays. Apps like Mint, which often link to your bank account, can keep tabs on your spending for you. “Most people don’t want to face the reality that they may not be making the best financial decisions, so Mint developed a new tool, MintSights, to target some of these biases to drive improved financial decision making,” says Danielski. “MintSights provides personalized advice and alerts when you’re approaching budget limits and also helps you monitor account balances to avoid over-drafting your account.”

There are also apps that are specifically designed for gift-giving, and that help keep your list in check. “Make sure you are tracking what you’re buying for each person on your gift list so that you don’t end up doubling up for one person and end up empty handed for another,” advises Woroch. “This can throw you in a panic and cause you to spend more at the last minute to find a gift without properly searching for the best deal or item. Apps like Gifster allow you to manage your shopping list easily and watch your spending.”