It represents one of our favorite times of the year. During the holidays, people travel quite a bit to see friends and family. They also shower each other with gifts befitting the season. That can add up to a significant amount of money. But, let's examine this gift situation for a moment. "Befitting" or not, the gifts we give should be ones that we can afford to give to those special people in our lives. Each year people literally go into debt disregarding this simple, basic principle. At the end of the holiday season they promise themselves that they won't do it again – until the next year. Could it be that we're trying to "keep up with the Jones’s" or do we just not want to look like cheapskates compared to what others give?

It can take many months to pay the credit card bills created the previous year. This is a vicious cycle that only leaves us dreading the season that should fills us with love and goodwill. So, this time around, keep that promise to make the season bright – not by going into hock, but by using some sensible tips and advice to plan and enjoy a cheerful holiday that everyone will be pleased to share in.

Managing your money before the Holidays

The oft-used cliché "when you fail to plan, then you plan to fail" is an entirely appropriate sentiment for the upcoming Holidays. When we neglect to set aside money in advance for these expenses, we'll almost always spend more than we should. So, let's come up with a strategy.

Consider creating a holiday budget. This budget will be for the Christmas holiday as a whole. Each category can pertain to a different area of spending. For instance, create a category for decorations, food, gifts and parties. The last category can be lumped into the other three if your party invitations are slim. But, if your house is going to be Party Central for the upcoming season, then a separate category might be wise. Don't forget to include an amount for holiday incidentals, such as Christmas cards, candles, and the cost stamps and mailing packages.

Open a Christmas club account. Most banks and credit unions offer a savings plan designed to put away money for the Holidays. Starting in January, divert a certain amount of money each month or from each paycheck into this account. It doesn't have to be much. This is another potential area for going overboard, so be careful. Even if you only have $25 a pay period to use, that can add up to more than $550 by the first of December. If you need more, you can probably squeeze out another five or ten dollars for each deposit. Christmas club accounts are also an excellent way to teach children about saving money. They can contribute a part of their allowance into their own account and watch it growth throughout the year.

By the way, a regular bank account will also work for saving holiday money. If you receive a significant amount in a lump sum such as a tax refund, you might consider putting it into a Certificate of Deposit (CD). That money will earn more than the standard savings account. And, if using a money market account, as long as a minimum amount is kept in it, you can write checks for gifts that you come across throughout the year.

Now, let's move on to what the kids can do to prepare for Christmas. Direct them to start a change jar. Every evening they can put any loose change accumulated during the day into the jar. You can also help by contributing your change to the jar, as well. To everyone's surprise, that change will up quickly. When November rolls around, take the change jars to a coin machine at the local grocery store to trade the coins for paper money.

Holiday decorations

Decorations help create a festive holiday mood. Whether you prefer an artificial tree or the real thing, there's just something about a fully decked-out home to ring in that special time of year. But, because many of us tend to go financially overboard here as well, let's consider a few tips to save some money without giving up any of the look and feel that we all love.

The best time to purchase Christmas ornaments is during the after-Christmas sales. During the holiday season, develop a habit of envisioning the dressing of your home and tree in years to come, and then shop for decorations that will help you to convey those ideas during the next season. Making these purchases immediately after Christmas can save you fifty percent or more.

On the other hand, some people are born with a talent for crafting. If you have a family member like this, employ them to create some unique ornaments for the Christmas tree. One-of-a-kind trinkets like these can become family heirlooms.

But, it's not just the Christmas tree that must be decorated. The rest of the house will be dressed as well, and many of us go overboard with this. So, instead of spending top-dollar, peruse the neighborhood dollar store. They sell Christmas decorations in all shapes and sizes. This includes silk flowers in holiday colors, kitchen towels, holiday glassware and plates, and serving accessories. Buying a pre-decorated Christmas wreath can be twice as expensive as purchasing a plain wreath and adding little trinkets to it. Christmas cards can also be purchased there. For the price, you can afford to buy different cards for each household you send one to.

Holiday food

Needless to say, food is a very important part of the holidays. The main reason for Christmas may not be food, but many of the good times we seem to have center around it. Food brings people together. Whether it be a wedding, funeral, reunion or holiday, you'll see families gathering around a large meal with all the trimmings. But, due special ingredients as well as sheer volumes, food can also get pretty expensive during this time of year. If you're a holiday baker or party host, getting the menus together ahead of time will save you lots of money. Preparing a comprehensive list of ingredients for family dinners, desserts and party foods will allow you to mark things off as they're bought.

Buy ingredients in bulk. Baking requires lots of eggs, butter, milk and other items; food warehouses are a great place to save money when you need large quantities. Taking it a step further, saving money in this way can also lead to saving time. For instance, if you're planning on baking a pound cake for Sunday dinner but you also need to provide desserts for a church function and a party at work, let that pound cake recipe do double- or triple duty. Tripling the recipe will allow you to bake three cakes in one mixing.

With so much going on during the holiday season, cooking separately for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is not always practical. Simplify life a bit with casserole dishes appropriate for each meal time. A breakfast casserole will feed the entire family. Prepare it the night before, and each person can heat up their portion as they come in for breakfast. The same can be done for lunch and dinner. Casseroles are quick, easy and convenient. And, don't forget to buy plastic ware and disposable plates. No one wants to wash dishes, especially the one that's doing all the cooking. Give the dishwasher (both the machine and the human) a break by using disposable items.

Holiday gifts

The easiest way to shop without hassle and stress is to do it early. Most of us use shopping as a way to get into the Christmas spirit, but getting it done at the last moment tends to promote a generally stressful holiday season.

What types of gifts do you buy? Of course, you should buy items that you think someone would like to have based on their tastes. The most meaningful gift is one that meets the recipient's desire or need. But you needn't be pressed to spend all that you have. A great rule to follow is to give a little something to everyone so they know that you care for them. Really, it doesn't take much to satisfy someone. As long as the gift will be useful to them in some capacity, they're quite likely to be pleased.

Food can also be a great gift to others for the holiday season. At one time, when people didn't have much else, they would always share an item of food. And during a time when some were in more need of food than a new doll, it was welcomed with a heartwarming "thanks." While we may not be in that type of need anymore, food gifts still convey a sentiment of goodwill. A cake wrapped in a box with a decorative ribbon, or some other sweet treats, can be fine Christmas gifts. Breads and gift baskets are also good choices. But remember, with food gifts, presentation is important. A batch of homemade cookies means more when given in a decorative jar or tin than in a simple Ziploc bag. Take the time to jazz up the gifts.

Instead of trying to keep up with the Jones's, keep up with the sentiment and the real 'reason for the season' instead. Honor the holidays by sharing not only your goods, but yourself as well – even if it's just a smile. You may never know how that one act alone could save someone's day. And always remember, it's still the thought that counts.

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