Our Holiday Budget Planner Will Let You Play Santa Without Going Broke

a woman walking with christmas bags
Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Holiday shopping season is almost here!

And before figuring out what you should spend your money on, it’s essential to figure out how much money you can spend.

We promise: If you set aside an hour to review your numbers, you’ll emerge in the new year feeling much better.

Budget Planning for the Holidays

To make this a little easier (and a lot more fun), we’ve created something special just for our Penny Hoarders: A free holiday budgeting worksheet.

Before filling it out, get in the swing of things with these seven tips…

1. Analyze Your Debt

It may not be pleasant, but it’s necessary: Before you do anything else, take a good look at your debt — specifically, your credit card debt.

If you have more on your credit cards than you can pay off this month, we urge you to reconsider participating in the holiday shopping frenzy. A much better use of your hard-earned money would be to pay down your credit card balance.

Skipping the expensive gifts doesn’t mean you can’t shower your friends and family with love. You can make gifts by hand (here are some affordable gift ideas), or you can give them service coupons for favors — like cleaning their house or making them dinner.

After all, a gift from the heart often means more than something that will be out of style next year.

2. Project Your Total Holiday Income

Credit cards in the clear? Time to estimate the total amount you’re going to earn over the holiday season.

If you get the same paycheck every two weeks, this will be easy.

If your pay is irregular, it’ll take a little more effort. One option is to look at your pay stubs or bank accounts from this time last year.

Or, if your job has changed since then, you can average the amount you earned over the last three months. (If you have a particularly high month, throw it out; it’s better to err on the lower side.)

3. Calculate Your Basic Budget

Once you know how much you’ll earn during the holiday season, it’s time to calculate your expenses.

Before determining how much you can spend on holiday extras, you need to create a basic budget for essentials like rent, groceries, car insurance and other expenses. (If you don’t already have a monthly budget, stop what you’re doing and read up on the basics of how to budget.)

But you’re not done yet — we still have to add the fun stuff.

4. Calculate Your Holiday Spending

So, you’ve figured out your projected income and a basic budget for the holiday season — but what about the extras? How much can you spend on gifts and parties?

To find that magic number, subtract your basic budget from your projected income. Voila! You now know how much you can comfortably spend on fun stuff over the next couple of months.

If you want to know how much you can spend on gifts alone, simply subtract again: The amount of money you plan to spend on things like flights, special foods, party outfits, etc.

5. Fill Out Your Holiday Budgeting Worksheet

Alright, Santa, who’s on your list?

Record your friends and family members in our handy holiday budgeting worksheet and assign a gift budget to each.

The amounts should add up automatically — if the total is less than or equal to your official total budget, then you’re good to go. If not, tweak the numbers until they work. (Remember: A little extra wiggle room never hurts!)

Next, brainstorm gifts for each person that are at or below each price point.

6. Start Tracking Prices

One of the keys to smart holiday shopping is patience. Well, patience and research.

Before making any purchases, check prices at multiple stores. Price-tracking and -comparison tools abound, which makes the process nearly effortless.

BuyHatke is a useful browser extension that compares and tracks prices. When you shop on Amazon, it also displays price-history graphs, so you can see if the current price is really a bargain.

If you’re on the go, scan an item’s bar code with Purchx to read reviews and compare prices. Or try the SlickDeals app, which alerts you when prices drop in certain categories or at your favorite stores.

7. Stick to It!

This step may be last, but it’s one of the most important (and is definitely the hardest to follow).

Sticking to your budget is the only way to avoid a holiday hangover — at least financially.

To help, create a “holiday” expense category with an all-in-one tool like Mint or an app like Santa’s Bag, which will help you manage both your gift list and holiday budget from one platform.

If you prefer something more tactile, withdraw your holiday shopping budget in cash and keep it in a jar.

If you buy anything online or with a credit card, take that amount out of the jar and put it into a separate envelope, which you can later re-deposit into your checking account. Once that jar’s empty, so is your holiday budget.

One bonus of carefully tracking your holiday spending? If you find great deals, you may have a little extra cash for yourself at the end.

You might curse us when you can’t buy every single thing your heart desires, but you’ll thank us when the new year arrives!

Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.