THE MORE I shopped, the less I knew. Like, what to get those family members who have everything? (Yes, even fancy, artisanal versions of ordinary things.) Or those once-close friends who moved and bought a house and haven’t mentioned playing board games in a while? Who knows what they like now? We weren’t sure. What’s more, the fact that my fiance and I were gift-shopping on Christmas Eve added a frantic quality to our experience, which was already pretty miserable and cold.
It was a little over a year before we moved to Arkansas. We were running around an outdoor mall in Ohio, and the wind was in its element—a spiteful old dog that wouldn’t shut up its racket. That day, the mall must have been one of the most trampled destinations in the city, overrun by shoppers trying to squeak through the season and find impossible presents in the last gasp of Christmas. And if there’s anything you need to know about last-minute Christmas shopping, it’s that it exorcises the worst behaviors in people—pushing, shoving, reckless throwing and piling of unfolded clothes. We didn’t verbalize it, but I know we were thinking: Why? Why did we leave this to the last minute? Never again.
It happened again—and again, the year after that. I’m not quite the daredevil shopper I was that one year in Ohio, but there were a few times when I let my gift-giving standards really go to hell simply because I ran out of time. Or money. Or both. I’m not alone in this. I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of hastily wrapped, whatever gifts, which is why I reached out to Laura Hendrix, associate professor of personal finance and consumer economics at the University of Arkansas, to put together a list of sound Christmas-shopping advice—a survival guide, if you will. Because things need to change. Gifts need to change. And because, as you’ll read below, planning ahead pays. Literally.
Plan to plan ahead.
“When we teach budgeting—or I really like the term ‘spending plan,’—we talk about fixed, flexible and periodic expenses. Periodic expenses are things like holiday spending. You don’t have them every month. They’re not the same year in and year out. Ideally, we are setting aside a little bit every month throughout the year in anticipation of this expenditure. That’s ideally. It doesn’t always happen. The thing is to have a strategy—not to just pop into a store, walk around and buy what looks good. The basic idea behind budgeting for the holidays is to list your total monthly income and expenses and see how much money is left over.”
Don’t forget the little things.
“When deciding how much money you can afford to spend on holidays, you have to remember there are going to be things like extra food or special meals that you’ll make. There may be decorations. There may be travel. Even if you’re driving across the state, that’s an extra tank of gas that you might not have anticipated, plus meals along the route. So there may be other small things in the holiday budget besides the gifts.”
Start your shopping early. Like, Black-Friday early.
“When it comes to the gifts part of it, I think it’s important to make a list of everyone you want to buy gifts for, and then use all of the smart shopping strategies that you can to get as good of a deal as possible. This time of year, there’s Black Friday, which has really grown to be almost the whole month of November. Cyber Monday is not on Monday anymore. If there’s a certain store that you like to shop at, you can download that store’s app on your phone. Sometimes, there will be coupons or store specials that you can apply from your phone.”
And don’t forget YOU.
“Another decision we have to make as consumers is, Am I going to shop for myself when I’m out? Or am I just going to stick with other people’s gifts? I think it’s perfectly acceptable to put yourself on the list. Now the other thing that you have to be aware of is impulse buying. You’re out, and you buy something for someone, and you want one for yourself, too. And so, you go ahead and buy one for yourself. That’s probably an impulse buy. That’s something that we all have to battle against. It takes some willpower, some self-discipline and is something you’re going to have to plan ahead for.”
Cash or credit?
“There is a grassroots movement toward pay as you go and never using credit, and I think that’s great. If that’s what works for people, they can embrace that. If you’re operating and managing your household on a cash basis, and you look at your income and expenses and realize you don’t have anything left over, then you don’t spend anything. Or if you have $100 left over, you spend $100. If you are operating on a credit basis, there’s that temptation to rack up expenses on your credit card, even if you don’t currently have the money to pay them. Now, I know there are consumers who use rewards points, cash-back and airline-miles cards, and it’s their regular practice to put everything humanly possible on their card and pay it off every month. For those consumers who have the self-discipline to do that, I think that’s a fine strategy to use as well.”
Consider putting money aside in a savings account.
“Sometimes, that’s an easy way to save. I really like the idea of having separate accounts for different things. For example, maybe having a checking account that you use to pay your regular monthly bills and a savings account that’s designated as your emergency savings fund, then a separate savings account for something else that you’re saving for—a down payment on a car, or a house, or holiday shopping, or your vacation. It’s just a way to make sure you don’t dip into that money during the year if some impulse buy catches your eye.”
Don’t just focus on the gifts.
“One of the important things when we’re thinking about the holidays is to remember that the happiest holiday memories for most of us are about traditions and not gifts. If you think back to when you were a child and remember what sparks that warm, fuzzy feeling, it’s typically things like decorating the tree, or decorating the house, or sitting in the living room with the family watching a Christmas movie, baking holiday cookies or visiting relatives. We are still going to buy gifts for family, of course, but you always want to encourage consumers and families to put more of their energy toward those holiday traditions rather than spending.”