Holiday shopping: 13 smart ways to start now

by Sarah Lorge Butler for CBS MoneyWatch.com

Over the weekend I had a Martha Stewart moment: I ordered the family holiday card. On October 10. Done. Check it off. Now, when the box arrives from Tiny Prints, it will sit unopened on the dining room table until December 26, but that's another story.

Every year December is such a grind of shopping, cooking, wrapping and rushing. The only spirit of the season I feel is annoyance. I'm fighting crowds and traffic, overpaying for gifts that aren't quite right, and generally feeling like I'm on the verge of a breakdown. Somehow I don't think that's what the holidays are supposed to be about. I'm trying to right the ship.

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I asked my Board of Parents for suggestions on how to ease holiday stress. And the parents who show any acumen in this area are all moms, because, let's be honest here: Women do the majority of holiday prep. It's one of those executive functions in a family, like pediatrician visits and lining up childcare, that always falls to the mom. But I digress. Here are their responses on what they do in October to make December feel better - and less expensive:

Cards:

  • "I print out mailing labels for Christmas cards. I have a Word file for Avery labels that I use every year, so I make sure the addresses are current, and I print them now."
  • "Do the card now, especially if you're using a picture from summer. Address the envelopes while watching football on Sunday. Then there's no guilt about sitting down to watch a game."

Gifts:

  • "I make a list of the people to whom we will be giving gifts. For those we give cash or American Express cards, like cleaning people, babysitters, and the hairdresser, I try to pick up a crisp bill at the bank now or pick up an Amex card once per week to spread out the cash outlays."
  • "I put aside a bag for each person in our household who gets a stocking. I try to pick up stocking stuffers little by little now. Ideally they are all things that we use, and I try to get things when they are on sale and pop them in the bags until they get transferred to their stockings."
  • "I always give the kids a new Christmas book, so I try to get them in advance."
  • "My goal is to have all gifts for the kids in the house by Thanksgiving. Having the goal of getting it done is the key! I don't like to disappoint myself."
  • "I have pumped each child for their one big desire and shoot to get that in the house by Halloween so as to avoid disappointing them. (The risk: The one desire changes by December 20.)" -- "Toys-R-Us starts sending out their first round of coupons this week."
  • "I collect all teacher, coach, Girl Scout leader gifts throughout the year. As I see a bargain on stationery or something similar, I grab it. Last year, I found these great little bags from Lands' End on sale midyear. I bought a bunch and then had them monogrammed by someone I know once I knew who the recipients were."
  • "I start buying the bigger stuff whenever I see it. If I think to myself, 'Boy, my husband would really LOVE that,' instead of putting it on a list, I get it on the spot. And I actually pay for it on the spot as well. Shopping a little at a time helps to avoid a big bill after the holidays."

Cooking:

  • "My aunt makes rum cakes months in advance. She swears they're better the longer they have to ferment."
  • "We bake a lot of cookies, so I try to pick up ingredients little by little at Costco when I'm going there now to avoid the December crowds."
  • "I actually gave some people gifts of baked goods or fruit at Thanksgiving instead of Christmas to spread out the baking and gift-giving and people seemed to really like that."

Have any other tips to share about making December less stressful and more meaningful? Know any dads who rock at holiday prep? Sign in to share your suggestions below. Please, I need help!

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