How can I stick to my budgeting and personal finance goals during the holidays?

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Answered by: Rebecca, An Expert in the Managing Money Category
Budgeting -- a key part of anyone's successful personal finance strategy -- is not easy. It's particularly hard to stick to your monthly budget during the holidays, when gifts, parties, and treats tend to dry up the average person's monthly cash flow.

The secret is to think about -- and plan for -- your holiday budget well before the holidays come around. Here’s how to keep ahead of the game and keep your budgeting and personal finance strategies intact:

-Buy local — all year long. If you tend to shop farmers' markets or antique and craft fairs during the summer, look for holiday presents there. Take advantage of the lower cost of direct-to-consumer goods and, in the case of antique fairs, the possibility of bargaining. Do you have a foodie friend who would love to receive local jams or honey? Or perhaps you know someone who loves crafting or knitting and would love a handmade gift.

-Check out Etsy. For your friends who have everything, Etsy is a good place to find one-of-a-kind but often affordable presents — home accessories, clothing, jewelry, furniture — in an unbelievable range of styles.

-Check out moving and going-out-of-business sales. This summer, Borders went out of business. While that was unfortunate, there were many deals to be had. I went to my local Borders as soon as their sales discounts hit 50-70%%. I scored a ton of Christmas and birthday presents at next to nothing.

-Buy for next Christmas. Last January, I was at at a card store buying a calendar (buy it in January and you’ll get it practically for free) and I saw all of these lovely left over Christmas cards. They were exactly my style and they were more than 50% off. This year I won’t have to rush to the store before Christmas and buy overpriced cards; I’ve already got what I need.

-Pay attention to hints all year long. Maybe your friends have Twitter feeds or Facebook pages. Did they mention a favorite charity you could donate to in their name? Or perhaps they mentioned a store that they love to frequent. Bookmark a site they have mentioned and periodically review what you’ve saved. When you’re spending time with them, try to listen for clues (hopefully you are listening regardless!) to what your friends and family would like. Then when you see something relevant, like an end-of-season sale at their favorite store, you’ll be ready to pounce.

-Do a little recon on every trip. Even if you’re just running an errand — like stopping at the mall because you need a pair of jeans — do a quick run-through of a friend's favorite stores. Recently I was looking for shoes to wear to a friend’s wedding, and on my way to the shoe store I passed a store that another friend of mine loves. I went in and sure enough, they were having a pretty big sale. I was able to score birthday presents at a considerable discount. This goes for online retailers too — if you’re checking out a website for a particular item and you come across something someone else might like that’s on sale, or you can buy multiple items and receive a discount, do it now.

-Buy small and hold out for shipping codes. If you’re like me, and you have a lot of family and friends who live out of state, think about shipping costs when you are selecting a gift and buy items you know will fit in the post office’s flat-rate shipping boxes. If you’re buying online, keep an eye out for free shipping deals and check out sites like – you should never, or very rarely, have to pay full shipping prices.

-Give time and love instead of stuff. Some of your friends and relatives probably have similar budgeting and personal finance goals -- maybe you can all make a pact to give nothing but love this year. Or make cookies or treats for your friends to enjoy instead of buying more things they don't really need.

That’s it — pretty easy, right? And easy on your budgeting strategy too. Most important, it feels good to give gifts your family and friends will like without stressing about how much you paid – or denying the importance of sticking with your personal finance goals.

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