Christmas is officially 7 weeks away.  I know — wasn’t it just June?  It’s hard to believe it’s already time to prepare for the Christmas season, but it’s better to plan ahead now, before things get too crazy and before you know it, you’re up to your eyeballs in commitments and wish lists and powdered sugar.

There are many facets in a typical holiday season — you’ve got your gifts to buy, home to decorate, events to attend, and food to prepare.  You might want to find ways to serve your community, maybe you’d like to start a new family tradition, or perhaps your family is planning a road trip to visit family.

But none of this will be done well if you don’t budget for it. In fact, you can prepare for a post-holiday burden if you don’t allocate your funds for specific holiday needs.  You can also probably assume a bit of stress and chaos if you don’t look at your money square in the face.

So that’s why I think the first step in preparing for an enjoyable holiday season — where you’re focused on the things that really matter — is to budget.

It’s not sexy, but it’s gotta be done. So let’s roll up our sleeves and look at some key factors in budgeting for the holidays.

Write out your needs.

Several years ago I created a very simple Christmas budgeting worksheet, and it’s still available for free on my downloads page.  Here, you’ll have space to scratch out your tentative needs for the holidays, being especially mindful of those things that we easily forget.

Christmas lights?  Extra baking ingredients?  Additional teachers or coaches on your gift-buying list?  These all require money.

Look at your money square in the face.

Ideally, you’ve saved up a little all year long, so by December, Christmas isn’t anything extra.  If this didn’t happen for you this year, though, that’s okay.  Make a plan to do this next year, and every year from now on, because Christmas isn’t an emergency or a surprise. It’s always on December 25.

This year, jot down every. single. expense associated with your holidays as you spend money, and next year, use that as a basic template for your holiday budget.

For now, though, you’ve got needs for this Christmas, and a finite amount of money.    What do you do if your expenses are more than your income?  There really are only two options:  to either decrease your expenses, or increase your income.  There are several ways to either option, and you might need to do a bit of both.

The most important thing is to not spend money you don’t have.  Credit cards are never, ever an option for Christmas (or for anything else, for that matter).  You simply can’t spend someone else’s money, hoping that one day, you’ll have the funds to pay it back.  It’s not a game of risk worth playing, and it adds serious stress to your family life.  Living on credit is the antithesis to simple living, in fact.

Don’t do it. Really.  Those commercials that tell you it’s a wise idea to buy gifts on credit cards because you’ll get airline miles, or cash back, or additional purchasing power, or whatever are lying.

So how do you realistically either cut expenses or add income?  Let’s look at a few options.

1.  Embrace a homemade, less-is-more look in your home.

Photo by Paisley Handmade

I also love decorating for Christmas.  But I’ve grown to love a minimal, authentic look using handmade crafts, sources from nature, and longer-lasting decor, thereby keeping our expenses way down in the decor department.

I’ll highlight some of my favorite decor ideas from around the blogosphere in the coming weeks.  So as you plan your budget, you can drastically cut your decorating line item by investing in low-cost supplies like construction paper, fabric remnants, glass jars, and pine cones and twigs from outside.

2.  Set a limit on gift giving.

In a few weeks, we’ll talk about creative ways to simplify gift giving with your children, and to start traditions out of how and what you buy.  However, you can decide now not to go nuts with the gifts.

Look at your line items for gift giving.  Can you lower your allotment for certain people?  How about cut out gifts for other people all together?  I know it’s not easy to talk about this with extended family, but it’s important, especially as your family grows.  You can’t keep buying gifts for every single niece and nephew, all your in-laws, and the neighbor’s dog forever.

Perhaps suggest drawing names, so that everybody only has one person for whom they need to buy a gift.  This doesn’t always work, though, when you’ve got five people in your immediate family — that’s still five gifts that easily add up.

You can also suggest doing homemade gifts (cookies in a jar are always nice), creating handmade coupons for services (babysitting, anyone?), or chipping in and pooling some money to buy gifts for those less fortunate.

Or — here’s a crazy idea — just stop doing gifts all together.  I enjoy wrapping gifts and watching loved ones open them as much as anyone, but at some point, the bleeding has to stop.  You can still have fun as a family without giving gifts.  Send out an email to your extended family, and see what people think.  You might be surprised that others feel the same.

3.  Stay out of stores, especially the mall.

Photo by David Porter

Sure, you might have to go once, to get something specific.  But unless you’ve got your seasonal job there, going to the mall regularly because of the festive mood is just asking you to whip out your wallet more times than you intend.  It can be fun when the music’s playing, the stores are festooned with Christmas decor, and Santa has a line of kiddos waiting to get a photo with him.  But this is all part of the stores’ plan to get you to spend more money.

When you go shopping, go with a list, with a purpose in mind, and with cash. Leave even your debit card at home.

4.  Find a seasonal job.

For four Christmases over the past ten years, I worked as a gift wrapper at Williams-Sonoma.  I adored that job (wish I still could do it, sometimes).  I love that store, I thoroughly enjoy wrapping presents, and I got a sweet discount for working there — perfect for gift buying.  Plus, the pay wasn’t bad for temporary work.

It was a creative outlet, and we played holiday music while we wrapped, which made it even more fun.  It almost became a family tradition for us, my gift wrapping at Williams-Sonoma.  This is where our Christmas money came for several years.

Between you and your husband, can you find time to work a seasonal job? A couple evenings a week should suffice — just enough for your holiday needs.  Check your local stores that do a lot of business over Christmas, or think outside the box and think of things you can do online.  Now might be a great time to start that Etsy shop you’ve been meaning to create.

Important: Start looking for a seasonal job now — in a couple weeks, the college students will fill those positions, and there won’t be any spots left.

5.  Make a bigger deal out of the little Christmas activities.

a christmas story

Christmas movies are either free on TV or in your DVD collection, already in your budget with Netflix, or fairly inexpensive at stores.  When you watch them, dim the lights and pop the popcorn.  Make an event out of watching them.

As you wrap presents, play your favorite holiday music and make hot cocoa.  It’ll feel more festive.

When you make a bigger deal out of these smaller activities, they’ll become more fun. It’ll also quench your thirst for those bigger-ticket Christmas events.

All in all, you can have a great holiday season without breaking the bank — a fun Christmas and a bank account in the black aren’t mutually exclusive.  But the sooner you plan your budget, the better prepared you’ll be, so that you’re not panicking when it’s time to make purchases.  And if you plan well, you can spend more on the things that really matter to you, and your family won’t feel deprived of the Christmas spirit.

This post was brought to you by The Vintage Pearl, which creates hand-stamped jewelry using only the finest materials (every piece is entirely made of sterling silver).  See some of my favorite pieces here and here.  A unique gift idea!

What’s your most challenging line item on your Christmas budget?  What’s different for your budget about this upcoming holiday season?