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HO-HO-HOLD the debt crunch

Sunny Freeman

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TORONTO — If overspending in a haze of shopping confusion is a familiar holiday refrain, you may need a more restrained approach to gift giving this season.

And just because it’s getting close to Christmas, it doesn’t mean it’s time to panic and splurge.

There’s still time to budget better and shop frugally for those on your list, and avoid a holiday debt hangover.

Canadians spend around $1,600 for the holidays on everything from a hosting festive soirees to buying gift wrap and tipping the newspaper carrier. That amount can get some shoppers into serious trouble and is also one that many people exceed, says Jeffrey Schwartz director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Service.

The number one piece of advice from shopping and debt experts is to make a list. Check it twice. And most importantly, stick to it. That means both in terms of who you’re buying for and how much you plan to spend on them.

"Then you’re going to the mall with a mission and then once you’ve ticked off your points on your mission, your mission is done," Schwartz says.

"Because it’s the impulse shopping that gets us into trouble."

Like a wedding, he says, the easiest way to reduce the cost is to reduce the number of people on your list.

To make your list start with those closest to you, from family and friends to colleagues and even service providers. Start with those most important and then work from there to see if there’s enough left for everyone else. If not, you’ll either have to buy a less expensive present or cut people from the list.

Cash is king for those on a budget, Schwartz says, because you can actually see your money going out of your wallet. Withdraw the amount you’ve budgeted and once the last bill or coin is spent stop shopping.

Don’t be afraid to openly discuss present amount limits with family or friends, especially since "we have to stretch our dollars so much farther now than we ever did before," says style expert Lynn Spence.

"There has to be open dialogue and frankness among friends and family and that’s why they’re called friends and that’s why they’re you’re family," she said.

"The family thing for me is probably the toughest one because everyone says ’great we’re all going to Aunt Sue’s for Christmas, there will be 27 of us’ and people feel very intimidated and say, ’wow do I have to bring something for 27 people?’ "

Consider a secret Santa even among a group of colleagues, friends and even family — that way you only have to buy one gift. Agree on a limit and stick to it. And don’t bother with junk, Spence says.

"Don’t bring Santa socks, don’t bring a plate with Santa on it. Bring something that somebody can use all throughout the year," Spence says.

If you can’t think of something creative go with a staple gift card, movie pass, or gift certificate for their favourite restaurant. A magazine subscription is also an inexpensive gift that keeps coming throughout the year.

Another option is to consider alternatives to traditional gift-giving such as doling out homemade coupon books for later favours such as free babysitting or a homemade meal.

And forget the greeting card, Spence says, they’re not worth the money. Just buy a bag of gift tags. You can also forgo the expensive wrapping paper in place of plain brown with a bright ribbon around.

"Don’t go and spend a lot of money on those bits and bobs, use that money to add to the gift," she suggests.

Go on a baking spree and use inexpensive tins lined with parchment or tissue for a more professional look. This works well as a present for a group of people such as colleagues.
"If someone makes something for me, I am always touched," Spence says.
And remember a bottle of wine always goes a long way.

For those you simply can’t afford to spend on, give a greeting card. But be sure to write something heartfelt and personal, and consider including a photo of what’s going on in your life.
"If you make time to sit and write a card,I think that’s incredible, because I never write a card, I don’t have time anymore, but boy if I get one, I love it," Spence says.

"The fact of the matter is, any gesture is a great gesture."

Instead of spending money on going out for dinner with colleagues, friends or family, try hosting a holiday-themed games night, a potluck or a party in which every guest brings a type of wine and a type of cheese.

It’s also important to keep in mind that for many on your list, the items you’re buying are wants, not needs and there are others out there that are genuinely in need. Get a group together to volunteer time at a shelter or food bank, or pool even small amounts of cash together and give to a charitable organization.

If nothing comes to mind for your significant other and they feel the same, perhaps this is the year you spend money on buying a Christmas for a local family.

"You do that, and there is nothing that feels better."

— The Canadian Press

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