8 Ways to Treat Your Christmas List Like a Budget

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Have you ever gotten through with the holidays come January and thought, “Where did my money go?”

You might have opened up your credit card bill or bank statement and thought “I spent how much on Christmas gifts?!”

I’ve been there before. The first year I was married my wife and I bought Christmas gifts for everyone. It was about 20 to 25 people—and bought an ornament for everyone on top of that.

Needless to say, we spent way too much money.

I’ve tried quite a few tips over the years to help rein in my Christmas spending. All of them helped in their own way. 

But it wasn’t until I combined them and starting treating my Christmas budget like an actual budget did I find real success in spending only what I planned.

Here are eight ways that you can treat your Christmas list like a budget to find success in your Christmas spending.

1. Track Your Purchases

Much like tracking your purchases is a must-have for your budget, tracking your Christmas spending is essential to staying within your budget.

On a fresh digital note (or paper), write down everyone that you are buying gifts for. Next to each individual name, put a dollar amount that you want to spend. 

Now, when you buy a gift, put a dash underneath their name with the total dollar amount of the gift you bought, sales tax and all.

If you want to get really detailed, you can also record the place and what you bought for the person.

It will look something like this:

Sarah – $50

  • White Christmas Movie Blu-Ray – $10.78

Mom – $75

  • Crockpot she was looking at – $64.38

Simple enough to keep track of and you know at a glance that you have $39.22 left to spend on Sarah and $10.62 left to spend on mom.

Just like with budgeting, tracking your Christmas spending will help you keep your Christmas spending within what you have budgeted.

2. Cut What’s Not Needed

In budgeting, I talk about frugality as spending on what you value and not spending on what you don’t value. That means cutting out the things you don’t really enjoy so you have more to spend on what you do enjoy.

Christmas shopping can be the same way, but I’m not telling you to start looking at your list to try and figure out the people you don’t value.

Let me give you an example.

For years, I would buy Christmas gifts for everyone in my family. Then, a few years ago we implemented doing a secret Santa-type gift exchange on both my side and my wife’s side. 

By doing the secret Santa gift exchange, we went from having 13 people to buy Christmas gifts for down to 4 people. That cuts out nine gifts we no longer need to buy!

This year we took it a step further with my family and decided to not buy gifts at all. Instead, we’re going to get together for a nice dinner.

For my family, we cut out what wasn’t needed by cutting out presents. What we value is spending time with each other.

Can you implement something like this in your own gift giving this year?

We do the same thing with my best friend and his wife. We really don’t need anything from each other aside from hanging out and spending some quality time with each other. 

Take a look at your Christmas list and budget and try and cut out what you don’t value.

3. Don’t Go Over Your Budgets

Overspending can be easy to do in any budget, not just Christmas. However, I’ve seen people who have a good handle on their normal spending go completely crazy with Christmas shopping.

One of the best ways to not let that happen is to keep a hard ceiling on your Christmas budget and don’t go over it.

Like a cash-only budget, once you hit the amount you set for each person there is no more money left to spend. You have to stop.

To make this effective, you will want to consider sales tax and if it’s going to be included in your budgeted gift amount. Forty-five of the fifty states in the U.S. have sales tax.

If you’re searching for a $30 gift for someone, taxes will bring that above $30. You’ll want to go under just a bit in order to stay within your budget.

Decide ahead of time if you’re going to set a hard cap on the actual price of the gift or if it’s going to include the total amount plus tax.

4. Be Intentional with Your Spending

In order to make sure your Christmas budget goes a long way, be intentional about the gifts you give. Just like with your budget, put your money in areas where you know it will have a big impact and have the most meaning.

If you have someone in your family that doesn’t really need anything, it might be good to get them a restaurant gift card or a gift for some type of experience.

If someone in your circle of family or friends is living paycheck to paycheck, it may be worth it to try and help them out with a grocery or gas gift card to help ease the burden.

You could also band together with several friends or family members to get one large gift for that person, or completely pay off a small credit card for them.

This would have a lasting impact rather than just a gift they’ll have or look at for a month and then forget about.

The same can be said of giving experiences rather than material things. 

As much as I can, I try and give experiences because they can create lasting memories for a person. 

Be intentional with your Christmas spending by considering what a person will find useful or what they actually need.

5. Use Leftover Budgets

One of the things you can do with your budget is to use money from one category to help fund an overage in another category.

For example, if you spend a little more in groceries this month than you had planned, you could pull the extra money from your entertainment budget or somewhere else you may have some extra money.

You could do the same with your Christmas budget. 

Let’s say you find the perfect gift for someone and it’s just under your budget. You bring it to the register and discover that it’s $5 or $10 cheaper than you thought.

Instead of trying to find another small item for a person, keep the amount you saved set aside for someone else.

You may end up finding another perfect gift for someone that is slightly over your budget. Put the savings from before toward this person’s gift budget and you’ve got two perfect gifts for two different people. 


Just like a real budget, don’t be afraid to move things around if you know everyone will be happy with it.

6. Spread Out Your Purchases Like a Yearly Expense

One of the best things you can do for budgeting is set aside money every month toward yearly expenses. This way you’re spreading out the cost into a smaller monthly amount.

Why not consider your Christmas budget a yearly expense?

Instead of waiting until November or December every year to buy all of your Christmas gifts in one lump sum, start your Christmas shopping early to make it more manageable on your bank account.

I try and start Christmas shopping as early as July. It’s a good excuse to play some Christmas music and get that “Christmas in July” feeling going.

If you are using other tips on this list and shopping for things you know will be valuable for your friends and family, you won’t have to worry about them needing to take anything back.

If you really plan ahead, you may even be able to start Christmas shopping for next year in January during the “after-holiday sales.”

Remember, the less you have to spend at one time, the easier it’ll be to manage the cost of Christmas.

7. Plan for Unexpected Expenses

Just like with budgeting, there are unexpected expenses around holiday shopping that you are able to plan for.

Every year during the holidays I tend to notice a few areas of our normal budget that always seem to get a little more expensive. 

Here are some things that may feel unexpected but that you can very much plan for:

  • Eating out. Sometimes it’s just easier to eat out when you’re Christmas shopping. You can set money aside for this and plan for that quick dinner while shopping or that stop to Starbucks for a caffeine boost.
  • Gas for the car. Since you’ll be going out a little more, set aside a little extra money for gas. Most people also travel a little more for the holidays to get together with family or friends.
  • Time. No this technically doesn’t involve money but you know what they say—time is money. Plan for things to take a little more time than you are anticipating. If you’re not prepared for it, it’ll make it really easy to do things like go out to eat or stop for a snack even if you aren’t wanting to.
  • A little something for yourself. It never fails every year. While shopping for other, I always seem to find something that is on sale that I wanted for myself but haven’t had a chance to pick up yet. It may be a movie or video game or a nice looking shirt that is half off. It’s definitely ok to spend money on yourself. Plan ahead for it and give yourself a limit if you do happen to find something.

Think about what other unexpected expenses in your own holiday shopping that you can plan for and expect. Your list may be different than mine.

8. Shop Around

When considering your own budget, have you ever looked at grocery ads for the best deal on a particular food?

Perhaps you’ve stopped at a gas station you see while driving because it was significantly cheaper than what you’ve seen near your house.

The point is, you probably shop around for things quite frequently. Do the same for your Christmas list.

Smartphones make this really easy to do. I like to keep a few apps open when shopping to compare prices.

If I’m at Target, I’ll check Best Buy or Amazon to see if they have a cheaper price. If I’m at Best Buy, I’ll compare prices there with both Amazon and Target. 

You can also physically go to other stores too. 

In my area, we have a Kohl’s, Ross, Target, and Best Buy all in the same parking lot. It’s super simple to go check out other stores for prices on what you want to buy for others.

Take a quick moment to compare pricing and you could save a significant amount overall on your Christmas shopping.

Final Thoughts

Christmas shopping can be quite the burden financially no matter what end of the financial spectrum you’re on.

That’s where treating your Christmas Budget like a regular budget can really go a long way.

Take these tips with you as you start, continue, or finish your Christmas shopping and say goodbye to the January Christmas shopping financial hangover.

What other ways can you treat your Christmas list like a budget?

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Hey! I’m Tim.
I am an expert budgeter and certified Dave Ramsey Solutions Master Financial Coach with a passion for teaching you how to manage your money the best way for you. I’ve been around the block with money and now I live to teach others like you and me what I’ve learned. Read more about me.
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