Holidays on a budget – yes, it can still be a merry Christmas

Christmas on a budget….Hhhmmm….Three young kids, two big families, six school teachers, one piano teacher, lots of friends – help! Can I make this happen? We have always had a theoretical holiday budget but I have always managed to exceed our anticipated spending which would make for a very lean January – lots of soup and staying in. This year money is especially tight so I have no option of extra spending. Here is my plan on how to have a great holiday and stay within our means:

Make a budget and stick to it. Tonight my husband and I sat down and listed everyone we buy gifts for and assigned a dollar amount for each. We shook on the list and I promised to stick to it.  To ensure this, I am going to hand over my credit card and only use cash – if I buy online, I will take the money out of the envelope and set it aside.

Lists. I will make sure my kids write their letters to Santa, and I will share with family members too, making sure no one buys duplicate gifts. I am going to ask my husband to make a list – and I will too – that we will share with family members.

Think ahead. There is nothing like receiving a thoughtful gift, and giving one is even more satisfying. I will take some time to really think about what each person on our list would love – and write it down. I have spent past years wandering the mall with no real plan and come home with my holiday shopping done, yet haphazardly and usually in excess. I am going to first think of the gift, then pick the best retailer and shop accordingly, with list in hand.

Don’t wait until the last minute, especially with personalized gifts or gifts that are being shipped. Some of the best gifts are personalized or photo-related – I make a calendar with photos of my kids for grandparents and other relatives each year (I go to and it takes some time- both to create online (choose photos, layout, etc.) and ship. Another great gift is pads of paper with a friend’s or family member’s name on top (Lillian Vernon is very reasonable with lots of options) – if I do it ahead, no need for rush shipping and now there are lots of good deals online.

Home made gifts – fun to make and give. My kids love making gifts for friends and family and especially teachers (see my blog from last year on ideas for home made teacher gifts). Cookies in a cute tin, home made candy in a plastic bag with a ribbon, paintings the kids have done mounted on foam core are just a few of the home made gifts that we have made in the past.

Secret Santas. This year my siblings, husband and I are picking names and buying a gift for just one person. We have set a dollar limit and it has to be a secret until Christmas day – this is great because we all have time to really put thought into the gift and a little intrigue is always fun.

Skip the gifts and spend time together. Some of my friends with whom I usually exchange gifts and I have decided that in lieu of gifts, we will get together with our kids and make Chirstmas cookies, go ice skating, or for the friend without kids, catch up over a glass of wine.

No personal shopping. I am infamous for sneaking personal purchases in on my holiday shopping – i.e, one for Aunt Susan, one for me. No more. I also feel the need to buy one new “holiday outfit” each year – this year I will shop in my closet for party wear.

How are you staying within your means this holiday season? Send in your tips!

What's Fresh from @RachaelRay

Rachael Ray