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January 10, 2012

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No one should dread the upcoming holidays because of limited finances – likewise, no one needs to compound their budgetary woes by splurging and putting themselves in even deeper debt for fear of looking stingy or ungrateful for past gifts you’ve received.

Here’s some sane advice on how to make gift-giving this year a pleasure for all, not a penance.

1 –  Start by making a list (and checking it at least twice!) of who really needs to be on your gift list.

This doesn’t mean you have to “drop” anyone from your shopping list – but be realistic by categorizing who’s on your A list (immediate family, significant others, close friends), who’s on the B list (distant relatives, work colleagues and business acquaintances, good neighbors) and who’s on your C list (high school friends, golf buddies, the mailman, local charities).

But wait, you might think, if I’m on a tight budget, why even have a B list or C list? Because your budgetary constraints do not excuse you from showing that you care and appreciate someone – think of it as realistically prioritizing your resources, not callously short-changing anyone. Remember: we’re all dealing with tight budgets these days, and a thoughtful gesture may be the best gift of all.

2 –  Create a quick profile of everyone on your  A, B, and C lists – age, interests, current situation and needs. This will go a long way in helping you choose a meaningful gift that will be much appreciated, no matter what it cost you.

For instance, your favorite niece with five kids will appreciate a grocery gift card more than a bottle of bath salts. A college student would love a homemade gift basket of packaged snacks, dorm toiletries, and a few gift cards for gas, pizza and movies near campus more than a new sweater. Your best buddy recovering from surgery would enjoy books or a magazine subscription more than a set of golf balls.

For the person who already has everything, make a donation to their favorite charity. A friend who’s always too busy would appreciate a gift certificate for a facial or massage at a local spa.  It’s the thought that counts – not the price tag – so give something that shows you really thought about it.

3 –  Change how you spend your holiday money.

If you haven’t been socking away money in a Christmas Club account, commit to spending cash only when you shop – leave the credit cards at home. If you absolutely do need to use a credit card, use the one with the lowest interest rate.

And make sure you set a limit to how much you can spend – and don’t forget to include gift wrap, postage/shipping costs, entertainment/travel costs when you figure out your total holiday budget.

And why not share the cost!

Consult with family and friends about pooling resources and buying one nice gift for someone, rather than each buying something small that will end up being re-gifted for next year’s “secret Santa” at the office.

Your parents would just as much appreciate that new coffeemaker or weed-whacker “from all the kids” rather than fret that someone struggled to afford it as an individual. Your grandchildren would rather get that new video game “from Santa and Gramps” than not get it at all. And this strategy helps prevent duplicate gifts, with all the hassles of receipts and returns, if you consult beforehand with others on gift-giving plans and budgets. It also spares embarrassment for your brother who just got laid off – let him handle the calls and logistics in lieu of cash.

4 –  Don’t wait until the day after Thanksgiving to find bargains.

Start your search now for sales, discounts, two-fer specials. Pile up all your unused gift cards, coupons, gift certificates, rebates and potential “re-gifting” items.  Many stores have brought back the lay-away option – use that to help you stay within your weekly holiday budget. Browse through book stores (they also have bargains on CDs and DVDs), flea markets, thrift shops (I found beautiful Revere copper-bottom pots with covers for a song, a perfect gift for someone just starting out after college) – and check out all the little specialty shops in your town, too!

5–  Why stand in line if you can shop on-line?

Save your time and gas trying to chase down a bargain at the malls. Start surfing the Internet – it’s a lot easier to comparison-shop for particular items, and you can register for email alerts when things you want go on sale. Look carefully, too, for free shipping, delivery date guarantees and return policies, and sign up for free coupons – or print them out and use them at a local store!

Buy the Sunday newspaper for all the sales inserts and coupons, then go to the merchant’s website (like BestBuy.com. Target.com)  to see if there’s a better deal online. [see sidebar]

6 –  Be creative!

If you can knit or crochet, make hats for all those nieces and nephews. If you’re a kitchen whiz, give loaves of your nut breads, homemade relishes – or an IOU homemade “coupon” booklet to feed and babysit for someone’s kids so that your friends can have a few nights off in the New Year.

If you’ve got a hobby, give something handmade – a birdhouse, seashell  tree ornaments, a scrapbook of photos.  If your grandson just got his driver’s license, give him a AAA membership and a promise to renew it every year. Give an elderly aunt a prepaid cell phone for emergencies – and program your phone number into it.

7–  Be careful about “re-gifting.”

It’s become acceptable these days to give someone something you already own, rather than spending money out of your pocket for a brand-new item. But be aware that many people still consider this as unappealing as receiving a musical e-card instead of a hand-written note. Know your recipient’s personality before you go this route – you don’t want your re-gifted gift to seem like a tacky last-minute afterthought.

First, make sure it won’t start a family feud if you give your great-grandmother’s lace tablecloth to your daughter-in-law, especially if it’s something your own daughter has had her eye on since she was five years old.

Second, don’t give something away if the person who gave it to you in the first place would be offended or hurt --and be especially careful that you don’t regift the item to the person who gave it to you!

Third, make sure the item is clean, in working order, and doesn’t look like something you picked up at last week’s yard sale – your best friend may have always admired your Hermes silk scarf, but if it’s stained and wrinkled when she opens the box, she may be a tad offended.

And last,  never give away monogrammed, autographed, or rare, one-of-a-kind collector’s items, especially to someone who won’t use them or appreciate their sentimental value  – you might see them later on e-bay or Craigslist!

8 –  Giving of your time is the greatest gift of all!

Offer to run holiday errands for someone with limited time, to babysit so that someone can shop in peace, or to take someone shopping with you who doesn’t have a car of their own. Volunteer a few hours at a local charity event. Invite someone who lives alone or who’s been recently bereaved to join your family celebrations and activities.

Gather up everyone’s kids and their friends to make popcorn-and-cranberries garlands or peanut butter and seed on pinecones decorations for the winter birds. And teach them how to sing carols while you’re at it.

9 –  Get a head start on your spring cleaning.

Make room for the gifts you’ll be buying by cleaning out your cupboards, closets, attic, cellar and garage. Unopened nonperishable foods can be donated to the local food pantry; pet food and supplies can be given to the nearest animal shelter; out-grown clothing and no-longer-used or needed household items can be offered at www.freecycle.org.

Many local families can’t afford to buy gifts of any sort this year, so your offering, no matter how humble, will be re-used well and gratefully. Many a friendship has started on freecycle.org…

10 –  Cut back on the “extras.”

Instead of sending fancy Christmas cards, send postcards (cheaper postage) or hand-written letters or, if appropriate, an e-card. Instead of buying expensive wrapping paper, use the comics section from your Sunday paper, have the kids draw on newsprint and use that, or try using leftover fabric and ribbons.

Instead of throwing a fancy cocktail party, plan a progressive dinner party with your family, friends and neighbors. And cut back on your electricity bill by minimizing your outside lighting (and switch to LED fixtures) and using a timer on your tree lights.

Savvy Shopping Online

Check out the following websites for holiday savings and suggestions:

For coupons, bargains and sales alerts, go to:

groupon.com

recipe.com/coupons

eversave.com

dealnews.com

GottaDeal.com

Slickdeals.net

DODTracker.com (deal of the day)

For comparison shopping and bargains, start with:

amazon.com

pronto.com

For discounted gift cards go to:

PlasticJungle.com

GiftCardGranny.com

For info on free shipping deals, go to:

FreeShipping.org

by

January 10, 2012

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