If you’re like most American families, the approach of the holiday season brings with it the anticipation of a month filled with family togetherness and merry memory making – in other words, the holidays as you’ve always imagined them. As each new holiday season arrives, you promise yourself that you won’t repeat the mistakes made in years past: guilt from overspending, exhaustion from overbooking, or the constant frustration over kids who misbehave and act ungrateful. Every year you pledge, “This is the year we’re going to do things differently.” And yet, things always seem to stay the same.

Don’t despair. It is possible to consciously create the holiday you want…if you make your list early and check it twice. The key to enjoying a really meaningful holiday season with your family is to plan ahead and to do it purposefully. Like anything else, the family time, parties, and bonding you’re envisioning don’t just happen. They are created by design.

When your quest to bring a fairy-tale holiday to life makes you feel more like Scrooge than Santa Claus, something’s wrong. I used to give up sleep, sanity, and anything else I needed to in order to be the “perfect” wife, mom, hostess, friend, volunteer, or what-have-you once the holidays were in my sights. I was determined to do everything just right, and from scratch! The problem is, I was so stressed and frustrated that I couldn’t actually enjoy anything, and the people I cared about didn’t value all of my trimmings nearly as much as they would have valued my time.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that you should shelve the decorations and pitch the holiday cards altogether. You just need to know where to focus your attention.

Most families get into trouble in three major areas: finances, time management, and what they do (or don’t do) with their kids. Now is the time to start thinking about how you want to handle these responsibilities. The key is to respond, not react, and to remember that it’s about cutting out what’s extraneous. By having a game plan in place before the madness starts, you’ll not only be able to rise above the fray-you’ll be able to make the holidays truly meaningful.

Today, let’s tackle the touchy topic of finances.

Part One: Finances

1. Budget in advance. Admit it: You’re guilty of spending twice what you should have on your mother’s gift to make up for the fact that you didn’t visit earlier in the year. Or grudgingly shelling out way more than you anticipated for the large number of “obligatory” gifts on a list that seems to grow with each passing year. Perhaps, like millions of other consumers, you’ve succumbed to the gorgeous packaging, clever marketing, and can’t-pass-them-up deals that stores have to offer this time of year. Who hasn’t?!

Before you head out to do your shopping, know what the hard numbers look like, and map out in advance what sort of cash reserve you’ll have to dip into. A great way to keep yourself accountable is to put your budgeted Christmas cash on a pre-paid card. You’ll watch your budget more carefully and when the money is gone – it’s gone. You’ll be less tempted to add just one more gift to the pile because of a super sale. If you don’t think you have the strength (or willpower) to go it alone, consider using the buddy system. Ask a budget-conscious friend or thrifty family member be your accountability partner. Having someone else in the know when it comes to your budget and holiday spending will make you that much more accountable and less likely to go spend-crazy.

2. Be honest about any financial changes. If you have to downsize your holiday expenses, it’s better that you – and your family and friends – know it now instead of when the credit card bills start rolling in. There’s no shame in readjusting the scope of your gifts in order to avoid a sackful of debt. If your loved ones truly care about you, that’s the last thing they’ll want! And they might be relieved to know that breaking the bank is not this year’s expectation.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask your neighbor for more than a cup of sugar. Say you’re planning on hosting a gathering at your home for your 30 closest friends…but you don’t have a punch bowl, enough serving platters, or a good variety of holiday music CDs. The temptation is to rush out and buy these items, but wait – is there anyone from whom you could borrow them instead? You can return the favor at your neighbor’s New Year’s Eve bash, and your wallet will thank you.

4. Think outside the gift box to all the “other” holiday expenses. If you’ve sat down with your own personal version of Santa’s list and a copy of your latest bank statement, pat yourself on the back for a job responsibly done. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet – there are other expenses to think about too! And when it comes to the holidays, if you aren’t careful, some of the more costly aspects of the season will sneak up on you and your wallet – and will leave you paying for it (literally!) in January. Whether you’re feeding your family, bringing a dish to the office potluck, or hosting an event, grocery bills can add up at an alarming rate this time of year. Don’t forget about the little “extras” like the holiday tip for your hair stylist and mail carrier or the gifts for the kids’ soccer coach or piano teacher. And those twinkling Christmas lights give your power bill a boost, so think ahead for the next month’s budget. Try to anticipate what you’ll need to spend – down to the tiniest of details – and plan accordingly.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part Two: Time Management!

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