By Lisa Walters,

When my husband and I sought guidance from the Credit Counseling Center, it was the month of July. I remember having this intense fear of having to pay cash for everything and not having the crutch of our credit cards. I sat down and wrote out all of the additional expenses I anticipated for each month throughout the year, so I could make a game plan to prepare. When I looked at my list for December, I realized there were quite a few things I’d need to save for if Santa was going to put presents under the tree.

    • Christmas Cards and Stamps
    • Kids Gifts, Family Gifts, Teacher Gifts
    • Christmas Tree and Decorations
    • Christmas Eve Church Outfits
    • Annual Holiday Dinner Out with Friends
    • Extra Holiday Events – Christmas light shows, cookie baking, seeing Santa

Previously, we had relied on our credit cards to support our gift giving and other expenses, but those high interest January bills were never a good way to start off a new year. I was on a mission to do better, so I went on Amazon and made a “wish list” for each of my three children. My intent was not to actually purchase from Amazon, but rather gather ideas for my children in five categories: Something you WANT, something you NEED, something you WEAR, something you READ, and something to DO.

Next, I went on the Facebook yard sale sites and found those wish lists for a fraction of the price. I spent the rest of my summer picking up random people’s used stuff and squirreling away Christmas gifts. I was ready to wrap by Labor Day. But here is the best part — when I compared my actual spending to what I could have spent on Amazon, I realized I had saved over $800 by purchasing used items. Additionally, it was easier to manage my spending and pay cash when I was scooping up a Barbie Dreamhouse for $30 one afternoon, and a Matchbox race car track for $10 a few days later. Setting a limit with the five gift categories has helped not only our budget, but our children’s expectations for Christmas morning.

Whether or not you have small children, I think the summer is a great time to start planning and preparing for the holidays. Make a list of your anticipated December expenses, and then decide how you are going to pay for them. Save a certain amount of money each week? Buy used? Buy a little now and spread your spending out?

I also recommend being honest with yourself with what you can and cannot afford. Our first couple months after enrolling with the Credit Counseling Center were extremely tight as we tried to adjust our spending habits and build our savings. We did not send Christmas cards that year because I couldn’t justify the cost, and we declined the invite for the annual friends dinner out because we would have been forced to use a credit card. Life went on. As far as I know nobody cried that we didn’t send out Christmas cards, and being able to pay cash for the fancy dinner with our friends the following year was 10 times sweeter.

I know from experience that lack of planning leads to frivolous spending, and you won’t get out of debt if you don’t force yourself to practice new habits. It’s easy to overspend around the holidays because we have this societal pressure to buy and give and do. Take control now so you can finish the year strong. Trust me, there is no better feeling than starting the new year off without any additional accrued debt. I am a huge advocate of Christmas prepping in July, and I hope you’ll join in the budgeting reindeer games!