*We are welcoming Tana from Debt Free Forties as a guest poster today!

Last year holiday retail sales during November and December increased to $658.3 billion*. That’s billion, with a B! And that’s just retail and doesn’t include charity contributions, holiday events, mailing gifts, or anything else. While the holiday retail sales numbers went up 4% last year, what’s even more shocking is that 56% of Americans were planning on taking on debt to pay for these gifts**.

I admit that in the past, I have taken on new debt for the holidays. I bet we can all safely say we’ve done it, right? While we’re all imperfect individuals, why not strive to make this year’s holiday season different?

If you take the time now to plan, organize and budget, you’ll be sitting pretty after the holidays. Just imagine how much different your January could be without that extra debt to worry about! Here’s a list of 13 ways to save money and simplify your life for the holiday season:

Plan to shop early and be done by mid-December

We all want to grab the best deals, right? Past years have shown that the best sales have all happened by mid-December. Plan on being done by then (if not earlier!) to get the best sales.

Mail packages early.

Since you’ve completed your shopping early, get those packages in the mail early as well! Shipping costs are astronomical as it is, but to slap a rush shipping cost on top of it afterwards because you want it to get to family in time is just nuts. Wrap and ship those packages as soon as you have them purchased. Or, better yet – buy online and get them shipped directly!

Take advantage of stores that price match.

My husband did this little trick a couple of years ago and still brags about it. Walmart had a big sale on a particular Xbox game he wanted, but had sold out in the store on Black Friday. He waited until later in the day and took Walmart’s circular with him to Target. Not only did he avoid the long lines, he got the game from Target at Walmart’s price!

Check with the stores you shop at and see what their policy is – some will let you pull up pricing on your phone to show them, others request that you bring in a competitor’s circular. This works for items you’ve already purchased as well, and you can get a refund on the difference. Again, each store has a different policy so check and see what they’ll do. It never hurts to ask!

Subscribe to email lists for the stores you want to shop at prior to the holidays to receive coupons.

Last October I started subscribing to emails from the stores I knew I wanted to do my Christmas shopping at. Not only do you get the latest info on all their sales, you often get coupons and discounts that the average person walking in off the street wouldn’t. Just remember to unsubscribe once you’re done shopping so that you’re not tempted to buy more items that you don’t need!

Shop with a list in mind and know the general price of those items.

It can be tough to figure out what to give everyone prior to shopping, but try to figure out the big-ticket items prior to stepping foot in the store. Check Amazon.com to see a general price on those items, so you have a decent comparison point to know if something’s overpriced or not. Or, while you’re in the store, look up the price on your phone so that you can see if you’re getting a good deal or not.

Buy discounted gift cards online.

There are several reputable gift card resale websites, such as Raise.com, where you can purchase discounted gift cards up to 11% off. You can also sell your old or unwanted gift cards there too in exchange for another store’s card that you know you will use.

Begin budgeting and saving early.

Even if you start in October, that’s 3 months to budget and save for holiday shopping. While it’s not much, it’s still enough to avoid putting the majority of your purchases on credit cards, right? Next year you can start in January so that you have a full 12 months of budgeting and saving to make it a cash only Christmas!

Start a list of gift ideas for each person throughout the year.

Starting a list of gift ideas for everyone you need to purchase for is a double win. First, you can shop for them throughout the year, ensuring you get better deals. And second, you aren’t stuck last minute wondering what to get. There’s personally nothing worse than buying something that you’re not sure they’ll like because you ran out of time and money.

Start planning air travel now.

There are differing opinions on when to purchase flights. One thing agreed upon is that Tuesdays seem to be the best day to buy. I’ve also read that either 52 or 30 days out from your trip is most likely to give you the cheapest rates as well, though 30 days out from Christmas seems cutting it close since the busy travel season has already started. I would opt for a bit further out, and then make sure to book the trip for “off” days – meaning, try traveling on Christmas when it’ll be cheaper, or mid-week.

Give homemade gifts, experiences, or give the gift of time.

One of my favorite money saving ideas for the holidays is to give experiences. This year, we’re treating my in-laws to a train ride instead of giving gifts. My father-in-law is a huge train buff, so I know they’ll love it. We usually end up gifting cookies and homemade treats for coworkers, and have even given babysitting as a gift. Figure out what they really need – like a date night – and then work on the best way to give it to them. Trust me, they’ll really appreciate it!

Talk with your family/friends about doing a Secret Santa instead of individual gifts.

On the other side of our family, we do a gift exchange for the adults so that we each only have to buy one gift. It takes the stress and cost out of the holiday so that we can focus on just enjoying our time together.

Use all your rebate and cash back apps like Ebates, TopCashBack, and ibotta.

Make sure to sign up for rebate apps like Ebates, TopCashBack, or ibotta. There’s rebates available for everything – including your baking supplies! November and December are a great time to stock up on baking supplies, between sales, coupons, and rebate apps.

Consider other ways to give to charity.

A lot of people are moved by the holiday spirit to give donations at this time of year. However, remember that it doesn’t always have to be money. Charities need folks to physically help just as much – whether it’s ringing a bell in front of a store, or serving up hot meals. Approach your favorite charity and ask how you can help them, and bring the kids along. Not only are you helping others, but you have a great opportunity to teach your children empathy and how to help the less fortunate. Truly a win-win for everyone!

These are just a few ideas on how to keep the holidays cheap and simplify your life as well. All it takes it a little bit of planning and organization to pull off holiday savings. Start now so you can enjoy your holidays debt-free this year. Your bank account will thank you come January!

*https://nrf.com/resources/consumer-data/holiday-headquarters

**https://www.fool.com/retirement/2016/12/01/heres-what-the-average-american-spends-on-holiday.aspx

Tana blogs at Debt Free Forties, a personal finance and lifestyle blog which helps her stay accountable with her own debt repayment. Her goal is to educate others on how to take control of their money and find their own financial freedom. You can learn more by visiting http://debtfreeforties.com or download your free debt and savings tracker printables here! https://debtfreeforties.com/free-debt-savings-tracker-printables/

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