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Stretch the holiday dollar

It’s not even Halloween, and here we are talking about Christmas.

But early or not, penny-pinchers say it’s time – or even past time – to begin spreading around your holiday expenses. That’s one of the ways experts suggest avoiding piling up debt over the holidays: Stretch out spending over months, stick to a list, and keep away from the credit cards or pay them off right away.

It’s a recipe that may sound a little Grinch-like. But whether your motivation is tightening the budget or committing to a less materialistic holiday, there are lots of ways to shave expenses on the yuletide ledger.

So, in the spirit of Old St. Nick, here is an imaginary conversation with an imaginary holiday tightwad – call him Son of Scrooge.

Q: Isn’t it too early to be shopping for Christmas?

A: Not if you want to spread the cost and avoid a big last-minute bill on the credit cards. Some people shop all year long, keeping an eye out for specials and that perfect something. (Your tolerance for yearlong Christmas shopping may vary.)

Maria Estarellas, webmaster for, writes that now is prime time: “If you decide to go to a local mall, make sure you do it during the first two weeks of November. You’ll avoid the majority of Christmas shoppers, and you are guaranteed to find what you’re looking for at lower prices.”

The Son of Scrooge isn’t sure about “guaranteed,” but the general principle holds.

Q: How many people actually do their shopping early?

A: Not many – or at least not many do all of it early. Consumer Reports did a survey last December, and found that only about a fifth of people had finished their shopping by a week before Christmas. A quarter planned to finish by Dec. 23, and another tenth by Christmas Eve. Five percent planned to finish after Christmas.

Q: How much charging goes on over the holidays, anyway?

A: It’s likely to go down this year, given the general state of the economy. But last year, the average credit card charge for Christmas gifts was $723, up 15 percent from the previous year. About a third of the debt remained on the books three months into the new year, the Consumer Reports survey said.

Q: How can we cut down the sheer number of gifts we’re expected to give?

A: Here’s what The Bargainist, a frugal living Web site, has to say: “Who do you have to buy presents for? Make a list, because without it you will have a hard time creating a budget. Only put the essential people on it. Now see if you can narrow it down a bit. The surest way to have an expensive Christmas is to have a list that’s too long.”

Q: But doesn’t that subvert the whole spirit of giving?

A: OK, then, make something. Here’s one suggestion from “If you have the skill, knitted and crocheted items of clothing or household items are personal and make great gifts. There are so many things you can sew, like aprons, place mats and napkins. You can personalize plain white T-shirts with family pictures. There are needlework projects, handmade jewelry, and doll patterns.”

Better than nothing? You decide.

Q: There must be some other ways I can save on gifts.

A: Try these: Start early and make a list, keeping an eye out for sales and bargains; set a budget and stick to it; troll the Web for coupons and special deals; declare this year a kids-only zone and just give to the youngsters; make your loved ones something to eat, preferably topped with red or green frosting; create personal coupons, granting the receiver a back rub or breakfast in bed.

On a practical level, scaling down expectations would be good – or shifting those expectations away from extravagant gifts toward quieter pleasures such as time with the family, fewer gifts and a slower pace.

Q: The cost of garland, glow-in-the-dark snow globes and mistletoe is killing me. Any suggestions?

A: Try something a little Laura Ingalls Wilder, like stringing popcorn as decorations. Get crazy and add cranberries.

Q: What about lights?

A: Strings of LED lights are now widely available. They cost more than traditional lights, but the savings in electricity use makes up for that within a season or two, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The lights use less power, reduce pollution from power plants and last longer than regular bulbs.

Q: Is there any way the newspaper can help?

A: Yes, for once. Use it to wrap your gifts.


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