‘Tis the season for massive spending. Americans plan to shell out an average of nearly $600 on gifts for others this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes $460 for family, $76 for friends, and $24 for coworkers (sorry, coworkers). But even if you’ve got an extra 600 bucks in your budget, presents make up just one part of holiday spending. According to a Time survey, 43 percent of people reported that travel was actually their top expense this year, and another 10 percent said entertaining expenses trumped gift-giving.
Those stats are enough to make anyone sweat. But if you’re committed to getting through the season while sticking to your budget, the splurge-fest can induce panic. First things first: Take a deep breath. “The holidays can be an especially stressful time of year, but having a plan and the right expectations can go a long way,” says Catherine Derus, CPA, financial planner and founder of Brightwater Financial. Then, check out these expert-backed steps:
1. MAKE A LIST (AND CHECK IT TWICE)
No question, stretching your gift-giving budget across every recipient on your list only works if you actually have a complete list. (And all of those small gifts that you usually forget to budget for, like the $10 Secret Santa at work or the $20 gift card for the mail carrier, can quickly add up.) Odds are, you have a few new names to shop for this year—maybe your college BFF had a baby or you’ve gotten close with a new neighbor. Mapping out your list in advance makes it easy to keep an eye out for the right sales, and it can spare you from last-minute shopping sprees that can quickly tank your budget.
2. BATCH AND BUNDLE
December 23rd is not the time to suggest a gift swap, but if you bring up the topic now you might be surprised at how relieved people are. “You’re definitely not the only one facing a long gift list—and shopping can be stressful even if people aren’t on a budget,” says Derus.
If talking money makes you feel like a Scrooge, focus on the time aspect—that you’re overwhelmed shopping for all 18 cousins or 12 sorority sisters and you think swapping names would let everyone focus on finding one great gift.
3. BRAINSTORM BEYOND THE RIBBONS AND BOWS
Be real: How many scented candles or funny mugs does one person need? “Maybe instead of buying another trinket that doesn’t mean much, you suggest doing a shared activity instead,” says Derus. Even with skate rentals and ample hot chocolate, an evening of ice skating with friends can be cheaper than everyone swapping $15 presents. And those shared memories can mean more, too: University of Pennsylvania researchers found that experiential gifts forge a stronger connection between the gift-giver and receiver than material presents.
“The more expensive a gift is does not mean more joy—period,” says Vid Ponnapalli, CFP, financial planner and founder of Unique Financial Advisors. “The joy comes from thinking about them and what they like, and finding something that shows you know their taste.”
That can mean splurging on a Le Creuset baking set for your sister who’s obsessed with sweets—or reining things in and opting for a homemade jar of vanilla sugar and one of your grandma’s treasured cookie recipes. You don’t have to be super crafty to go DIY, either. Maybe it’s offering to design a site for your friend who’s launching a business or gifting your pal who’s a new parent five date nights' worth of baby-sitting.
5. PUSH BACK TRAVEL
You might be able to save a few bucks by booking odd flights during December (like flying out Christmas afternoon or embracing the 5 a.m. departure). But the absolute best way to save on holiday travel is to wait until the holidays are over, says Ponnapalli. “For the past 10 years, I’ve planned a vacation in January, when you can save so much on airfare, hotels, and car rentals,” he says. “I almost cut my ski vacation cost in half by timing it right.”
Booking something later in the winter doesn’t just mean less strain on your wallet—it can mean battling fewer crowds and less stress while you’re at your destination. And while it may feel awkward to put off traveling to see family until after the New Year, a quiet holiday at home can quickly become a new tradition, says Derus. “You’ll have a little more time to save and get your post-holiday finances in order, so you can enjoy the trip more,” she says.