Christmas decorations in red and gold over glitter sparkle background

The approach of the holiday season brings with it the anticipation of a month filled with family togetherness and merry memory making. And yes, more often than not, a heaping helping of stress.

Each year, you probably vow not to repeat the mistakes of holidays past: guilt from overspending, exhaustion from shopping and overbooking, frustration over kids who misbehave or act ungrateful. Each year, you probably promise yourself that this year will be different. And yet…as you’re having a nervous breakdown from hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” for the 94th time, you realize that things always seem to stay the same.

So what can you do to break the cycle of annual holiday stress? The key is to plan ahead and prepare purposefully. If you’ve got game plans in place—for budgeting, managing your time and setting expectations for your kids—before the madness starts, you’ll not only lower your stress level, you’ll be able to make the holidays truly merry and meaningful.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ve got ideas to help you in all these areas, but let’s start today with strategies for keeping your holiday finances under control. Here are four tips to consider now so you don’t faint when your credit card bill arrives in January:

1. Budget in advance.

Admit it: You’re guilty of spending twice what you should have on your mother’s gift to make up for the fact that you didn’t visit earlier in the year. Or grudgingly shelling out way more than you anticipated for the large number of obligatory gifts on a list that seems to grow with each passing year. Perhaps, like millions of other consumers, you’ve succumbed to the gorgeous packaging, clever marketing, and can’t-pass-them-up deals that stores and online sites have to offer this time of year.

Before you head out to do your shopping, know what the hard numbers look like, and map out in advance what sort of cash reserve you’ll have to dip into. An easy way to do this is to download a budgeting app to keep track of your expenditures. Another way to keep yourself accountable is to put your budgeted Christmas cash on a pre-paid card. You’ll watch your budget more carefully and when the money is gone—it’s gone. You’ll be less tempted to add just one more gift to the pile because of a super sale. If you don’t think you have the strength (or willpower) to go it alone, try the buddy system. Have a budget-conscious friend or thrifty family member be your accountability partner. Having someone else in the know when it comes to your budget and holiday spending will make you that much less likely to go spend-crazy.

2. Be honest about any financial changes.

If you have to downsize your holiday expenses, it’s better that you—and your family and friends—know it now instead of when the credit card bills start rolling in. There’s no shame in readjusting the scope of your gifts in order to avoid a sackful of debt. If your loved ones truly care about you, that’s the last thing they’ll want! And they might be relieved to know that breaking the bank is not this year’s expectation.

3. When entertaining, borrow stuff instead of buying.

Say you’re planning on hosting a holiday gathering at your home for 30 family members…but you don’t have a punch bowl, enough serving platters, or a good variety of holiday music CDs. The temptation is to rush out and buy these items that in reality you’ll only use once in a blue moon. But think about it—do you have any friends or neighbors from whom you could borrow them instead? Never hurts to ask, and I’ve even seen friends use crowdsourcing to their advantage and put out a request on social media when they’re looking to borrow something specific. You can return the favor with something they might need, and your wallet will thank you. 

4. Think outside the gift box to all the “other” holiday expenses.

If you’ve sat down with your own personal version of Santa’s list and a copy of your latest bank statement, pat yourself on the back for a job responsibly done. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet—there are other expenses to think about. And when it comes to the holidays, if you aren’t careful, some of the more costly aspects of the season will sneak up on you and your wallet—and will leave you paying for it (literally!) in January. Whether you’re feeding your family, bringing a dish to the office potluck, or hosting an event, grocery bills can add up at an alarming rate this time of year. Don’t forget about the little “extras” like the holiday tip for your hair stylist and mail carrier or the gifts for the kids’ soccer coach or piano teacher. And those twinkling Christmas lights? They’ll give your power bill a boost—so think ahead for the next month’s budget. Try to anticipate what you’ll need to spend—down to the tiniest of details if you can—and plan accordingly.

Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season!

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