Friday, October 24, 2008

A Mother of Four's Guide to Holiday Shopping When You Aren't Rich

It is now one month from Thanksgiving, and "Black Friday", THE day when the insane and desperate sleep over in the mall parking lot after gorging themselves on turkey and pumpkin pie. (Or, pumpkin cheesecake, in our house). That's one month to save up the thousand-plus dollars that will be needed to fund the year's biggest shopping extravaganza, and yes, WalMart has stopped doing layaway.

But I'm not worried. Heck, last year I had everything bought, wrapped, and sorted into large bags tagged with the recipient's name by now. The only thing I bought the day after Thanksgiving was a latte. I owe some of that to nesting, but the rest has come from years of experience, and a strong desire to NOT be shopping with my credit card on Christmas Eve. In the spirit of giving, I will share what I know with you.

Tip #1: Set up a "Christmas Club" account at your bank.
If your bank doesn't have a program like that, just set up a savings account and religiously deposit $10 or $20 a week into it. You probably won't miss that money from your weekly spending anyway.
If you can't pull that money away from your budget, be creative. Pick up a childcare room job at your gym. Not only will you get some extra cash to put away, you might also get a free membership. Or, watch a neighbor's child one day a week. $20/week makes a huge difference.

Tip #2: Shop year-round.
Sure, in July you don't know what the flavor of the month is going to be for toys once the holidays roll around. Most toy manufacturers like to wait until the leaves start to turn before they start brainwashing kids, and if you've done all your shopping by then, you can count on waiting in the returns/exchanges line before you break out the heavy socks. But you can fill those stockings from Easter to Labor Day, especially if you do what I do: stuff the sock with things they NEED. Maybe we're a bunch of sickos, but my kids look forward to new socks, underwear and toothbrushes every year. I also include a new shower pouf, a Hallmark ornament, and a Chocolate Orange. And, of course, Santa always throws in a couple of small toys and games.
Pick up these items throughout the year when they are on sale/you have a coupon, and you won't even notice the money was spent.

Tip #3: You get an "extra" paycheck twice a year. Use it.
I have a motto: "There's no such thing as extra money." But twice a year, those of us that get paid bi-monthly get a magical third paycheck. And when you batch and cycle your bills like I do (stop calling me anal!), that third paycheck eventually puts you at a point where you are ahead of your billing cycles, and you have to skip over it! This happens to me once in the spring (summer vacation money!) and once in the fall (Christmas money!). This comes in handy not only for gifts, but for those holiday dinners that you didn't put money aside for.

Tip #4: Consider the aftermath.
We all love our kids, and love to spoil them, but when you're reeling every December 26th because it looks like someone looted Toys R Us and dumped the stash in your family room, you reconsider. When your playroom is full of stuff your kids just had to have and never touched, you think twice about what you are doing giving your kids everything they ask for. Let's not forget that grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends are also buying your kids presents. There's no way kids can play with that many toys.
To avoid over-gifting, I try to limit four gifts (not including stockings) for each kid: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. This cuts down on toy overload, and gives me a chance to buy the kids some clothes and necessities I might not have picked up otherwise.

Tip #5: Leave your credit card at home.
You can't save for next year, if you spend 364 days paying off your high-interest Visa!

Tip #6: Make the day after Thanksgiving "buy nothing day".
Yea, I already admitted to buying a latte. But in my defense, I was on my way home from the aforementioned gym job, and hadn't had my healthy daily dose of caffeine yet.
In addition to making it through the day without stabbing yourself in the jugular with a candy cane, you won't buy things just because they are a "good deal". Make a list waaaaay in advance of what you are buying for holiday gifts. Chances are, none of those are "door-buster savings!". If they are, I stand corrected, and you should lace up your running shoes and slap on your boxing gloves before the turkey leftovers are cold. More power to you. But if you are buying something for no other reason than the price is unbeatable, if you are going to figure out who'll get that great deal under the tree, you probably shouldn't buy it.

So, there you have it. Holiday shopping made simple. I promise that even without aggravation, the holidays will still be special.

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