Debt-proofing your holidays

Lots of us look at December as not a time of cheer and goodwill toward men, but as a season of dread and resignation. The reason: Just when we're getting a handle on our personal finances, the holidays come along and busts the budget into a million jagged pieces.

Holiday dinners. Decorations. Travel. The notion that you have to buy gifts for everyone, including the postman and your kids' teachers. It all adds up to a sickening sucking sound from you wallet, come your January bank balance and credit card statement.

But with a little forethought, you can manage to escape the holiday season reasonably unscathed. How? Here are a few tips to consider.1.) BUDGET! - No one likes to do this, because it means sitting down for ten minutes and thinking through the situation. But a little forethought into what we have to spend, and who we NEED to spend it on, can save you a bundle. Having a finite number in mind will help keep you focussed and thrifty when spending your limited holiday cash, and prevent you from using the credit cards to bust the budget. For next year, start salting a little away each month, even $50 into a holiday fun, so that you have a small stash come future holiday seasons. Money Magazine's Gerri Willis has more ideas on this here.

2.) Beg, borrow or "steal." Holiday decorations are often the stuff memories are made off, but you won't be able to forget the cost of them long into the new year. Try borrowing some holiday house bling from friends with more than they need. Tap Grandma as well, who'll be only too happy to hand down those little Santa Claus hand towels you remember from your childhood. If you must buy the decorations yourself, don't you dare buy holiday decorations for your home or office anytime after October. You'll be paying a premium. Instead, Buy the day after Christmas. The wreaths, lights, ornaments, figurines and other tchotchkes really go on deep discount after the first of the year, often at 75% off or more. Find a couple of boxes, then go to town on next year's holiday decorations.

3) Potluck. Nothing says Holiday like breaking bread with family and friends. But feeding the masses costs a lot of money, especially if you're serving ham and turkey dishes. Instead, make those holiday get togethers a potluck affair - Everyone brings a dish to the party. This spreads the cost of elaborate meals, and more often than not results in a much more expansive experience than what you could have prepared by yourself. It also keeps alive the integral communal experience of the holidays.

4) Secret Santa. Get out of the mindset that you need to buy something for every person you know. You don't. (and why would anyone ever feel they need to gift the kids at Starbucks?). If you have a large extended family, start the tradition of gift exchages -- that is, put everyone's name into a hat, and pick two or three to buy presents for. It's a great way to save a lot of time and money, and still feel like you're in the holiday spirit.

5.) Comparison shop. There's still just enough time to do your shopping online, and apart from not having to hassle with crowds or parking, there's another good reason to surf the Web for your holiday cheer: Comparison shopping made easy. Go to or to easily find the best prices on purchases and kiss those panicked, last-minute impulse buys goodbye.

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