How to Go on a Holiday Spending Lockdown

Don’t let the celebrations blow your budget with these techniques.

Business professional man holding a Piggy Bank in his arms
By + More

The festive season can come with a steep price, and no one wants to start the new year facing a monstrous credit card bill or depleted savings account.

The 2013 Discover Annual Holiday Shopping survey found that Americans are looking for ways to celebrate without doing too much financial damage. Most of those hosting parties say they plan to go the potluck route and ask guests to bring dishes. Others mentioned they plan to save by using email invites instead of paper ones and offering appetizers or other small bites instead of full meals at their parties.

Given the inevitable financial squeeze of the holiday, here are nine strategies for scaling back – and not letting the season run away with your cash.

Make your holiday budget. Before you even start thinking about how you can cut back to make room for holiday-related splurges, Linda Descano, president and CEO of Citi's Women & Co., says you should set a holiday budget for yourself. "It should not only take into account gift purchases, but also wrapping and shipping costs, along with holiday cards, decorations, parties, entertaining, tips and travel. Putting pen to paper will really help you get a good idea of how much you can afford to spend on gifts, after factoring in all those other costs," she says.

[Read: How to Handle the Winter Financial Blues.]

Shave $10 off, 10 times. Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, has a creative proposal: Instead of cutting back in just one area, she suggests cutting $10 off from 10 different categories, such as clothing, utilities and groceries. "Before you know it, you'll have an extra $100, and it's so easy that you'll keep doing it," she says.

Take advantage of seasonal entertainment. Local town tree lightings, carolers, museums and holiday concerts all offer ways to celebrate without reaching too far into your wallet. Even checking out the neighbors' elaborate light displays can make for an entertaining evening. And you don't need a new outfit for each occasion, Descano says. "Consider shopping in your own closet by mixing and matching items to create new looks – and if you must buy something new, always check for promotion codes online," she adds.

Create a smart gift strategy. Everyone on your list doesn't need a $50 gift card or pricey cashmere gloves. You can decide between giving small gifts to many people or "wow" gifts to just a handful, Descano says. Whatever strategy you choose, it's important to pick one before you start weighing different purchases.

Make your list and check it twice. One of the biggest culprits that destroy holiday budgets is the impulse buy, warns Holly Perez, spokeswoman for Quicken, a personal finance management company. "We all get caught up in these impulse buys – 'My co-worker just gave me a gift, and now I have to get one for them,' – but let's not give in to those impulse purchases," she says. Making a list in advance, and sticking with it, is the best way to do that, she says. Tools like Quicken also let you track your budget via mobile apps while you're shopping to give you added resistance to those last-minute purchases. Other methods to track spending include using Mint.com, Manilla.com, a simple spreadsheet or your credit card's online tools.

[Read: Why Gift Cards Make the Best Presents.]

Keep a "gift drawer." A great strategy is to save up all year and purchase gifts for family and friends when you see a great deal on an item they'll like. Keeping your "gift drawer" stocked with items on clearance or steep discount can help you avoid paying full price on a last-minute gift," says Laura Harders, founder of beltwaybargainmom.com, who suggests shopping for gifts all yearlong. That way, you alleviate some of the holiday spending squeeze.

Take advantage of the sales for yourself. Black Friday tends to offer steep discounts on home goods like furniture, which can be a boon for anyone looking to fill out their own collections. "I've furnished two apartments for less by shopping the Black Friday furniture sales," says Lisa Koivu, founder of the website fantabulouslyfrugal.com. She adds that Black Friday furniture sales tend to last for about two weeks, so there's no need to rush into the store the day after Thanksgiving. Cyber Monday also offers great deals on clothes, shoes and other personal items, so Koivu also uses the day to stock up on items she needs.