6 steps to a relaxed Christmas: create your holiday budget

Nope, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: it’s officially the beginning of our 6 Steps to a Relaxed Christmas series. Can you believe it? I seriously felt like I was just writing about summer vacation plans, and BOOM—here we are.

But yes, every year around this time, I write a short little series to help you start thinking of the Christmas season just a wee bit early—not so early that you brush it off or think I’m one of those crazies, but not so late that it’s really not that helpful.

I’ve found that with a little foresight, communication, and planning, Christmas is a lot more fun because then you can do the things you really want to do and ignore the rest. You can plan in advance those things that take a bit more time, and then thoroughly enjoy the process because you’re not rushed or doing a halfway job.

So, ready for the first step for a relaxed Christmas? It’s the same first step we do every year. And it’s not sexy, but it’s important.

Plan your Christmas budget

I know, you were hoping I’d say it’s time for the first gingerbread latte of the season or the first viewing of Elf. You’re welcome to do those alongside whipping up your budget, if that makes it more fun. But don’t ignore the money side of the holidays, because this one spot is where so many of us slip.

Money for Christmas doesn’t just come out of nowhere, but with a plan, you’ll have more than you might think. Hopefully you’ve been saving a little each month. But if you’re just now starting to panic about where the money’ll come, remember this feeling next January—and make the holidays a line-item in your regular monthly budget for the next season.

But here you are, thinking about now. I have a simple Christmas budgeting printable that may help you remember all those holiday details:

Download the free Christmas budget printable

Pour yourself a cuppa and talk it over with your spouse. And as you do, keep this in mind:

1. You REALLY don’t have to spend a lot to have a great Christmas.

Think back to your favorite holiday memories as a kid. How many of them involve a high-priced toy or a luxe vacation? Not many, I’d wager. They’re probably that annual movie you’d watch with a tub of popcorn and everyone under the blankets, or baking cookies for your neighbors with your mom.

The holidays are so much more about relationships than about things. Be generous and enjoy giving the gifts, but don’t despair if you’ve got less to spend on gifts than you’d rather. It’ll still be a great Christmas.

2. Limit your gifts.

I know, easier said than done—but it’s really doesn’t have to be a big deal. Our kids only get three gifts, and since it’s all we’ve ever done, they don’t expect any more. Kyle and I discuss in advance each year what we”ll do with each other—some years, we’ve bought ourselves one larger gift; other times, we’ve given each other a few smaller things each. We’ve also skipped giving to each other all together a few times.

Love this simple wrapping idea from Allora Handmade.

I’m also grateful that both sides of our family don’t really expect gifts. There’s simply too many nieces and nephews and cousins and in-laws to make it reasonable or affordable.

If your extended family won’t budge on gift-giving, perhaps you can suggest only homemade gifts, draw names, or set a low price limit per gift. We also like to give from Compassion’s Gift Catalog and give a gift in honor of the recipient, like a safe playground or teaching a mama to read and write.

3. Give.

No matter how small, make giving part of your holiday budget. Most non-profits depend on end-of-the-year giving to float the rest of the year, and there are so many ways to creatively give that it’s fun to include your kids. Giving should be one of their most vibrant holiday memories.

All the SLM sites will share some of our favorite charities in a few weeks, but for now, it’s a great time to fill a shoebox with your kids for Operation Christmas Child. National collection week is November 12-19.

4. Find an extra job for the holidays.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions has been my gift-wrapping job at Williams-Sonoma. If I wasn’t running this blog network, I’d totally still be doing it—I absolutely loved it. I could wrap presents in the back wearing jeans while listening to Christmas music, and I got a killer discount. Plus, they paid me.

If you’d like a seasonal job, look NOW. Many positions have likely been taken, but you never know unless you ask.

Finally, as we enter this holiday prep season, you might be interested in my friend Jessica’s latest e-book, A Simpler Season. She has encouragement to think through your family’s priorities for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, space to jot down your ideas, and printable to help you stay organized for the season.

relaxedxmas-1Photo by Rachel Sapp

I’ll add the links to all the steps here on this post, so bookmark this post (Pinterest, Tumblr, wherever) for all the links to the series as they go live.

So your assignment this week? Crack out your holiday budget. You’ll be glad you did, and you can get right on back to reveling in the early gingerbread latte season and watching Will Ferrell belch.

What’s the hardest part to budget for the holidays?

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. I have it all planned out this year. Last year I did a lot of handmade gifts but started way too late and it ended up being more work than it was worth. This year, simple all the way.

  2. Thank you, thats, what I need now!

  3. We have had a set budget for Christmas for years, I went one step further last year and purchased a wallet from a yard sale for .50 cents and filled it with money envelopes labeled with our different Christmas budget needs I call it my “Christmas Envelope” and it really helps to keep me from blowing the budget.

  4. Last year was the first time that we really made it a priority to simplify the Christmas season. It’s amazing how just a few small adjustments can change your outlook and focus during such a busy season. We LOVE the Compassion and World Vision gift catalogs. This is our first year filling a box for Operation Christmas Child but I’m looking forward to doing that with our daughter.

  5. Robin from Frugal Family Times says:

    We do all those same things, Tsh! The hardest one has been convincing adult family members that we can keep our giving small (or better yet, limit it to a card written with a thoughtful message). Sigh. Nothing’s worse than thinking you’ve got an agreement to keep it simple and then you’re lavished with gifts you didn’t reciprocate. Awkward. But we keep trying…

  6. We’re pretty simple. The kids get gifts, and so far in our marriage, we haven’t had enough money to get gifts for each other. It’s okay, though, because if we have any little money I’d rather spend it on memories.

  7. Outside of my children, we give almost exclusively homemade gifts, custom photo calendars, or personalized homemade cards. It feels so much more personal than just buying something at the mall.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

  8. Food is the hardest part to budget for me. I think because I blur the lines between what we will eat and what we will have for entertaining. I always say when we entertain that we will have so much in leftovers, which we then eat for the next several days. I definitely need to up my budget for food for the months of November and December.

  9. I loved what our family did for two Christmases – one year we had a $10 limit on gifts. I gave and received my favourite gifts of all time that year.. and another year all of gifts had to be bought from second hand stores. We had so much fun running around Salvation Army searching for great gifts for each other.. and we were all over 20 at this point :).

  10. I agree that the most important thing is relationships, not the presents. I’m really enjoying starting family traditions that are low cost with my 2 year old and hubster. Of course this year we are moving the week of CHristmas so I think things will be a little different!

  11. My number one goal is to limit the number of holiday gatherings I commit to going to. Dragging our two little ones to every family function is just too overwhelming and stressful for all of us and makes the holidays a meltdown tantrum for the kids and my husband and I, rather than joyful!

  12. What helps us with a Christmas budget, is starting the shopping for presents at the end of the summer. I use coupons where I can and I stick to a budget 🙂

  13. Awesome, thanks for this. We really need to stick to a budget and keep shrinking our Christmas for us, and expanding it for others. Last year we sponsored our second Compassion Child for Christmas and the plan is to keep turning out the gifts reather than inward within our home. Baby steps…. Thanks for this encouragement!!

  14. This is a timely message for me, I absolutely hate going over a budget, but our family has been hit hard with medical bills this year and we need to discuss spending before the craziness of the holidays sets in. Then we can enjoy the real reason for Christmas and relax into the season.

    Last year, there were two low cost things our kids (6 under 10 years old) loved and I think we will do them again. One was one I saw on Pinterest, where you put a special ticket under each kiddos pillow for a special Christmas ride. They find it as they are going to bed and then you whisk them into the car, PJ’s and all, and drive around to look at lights. We took snacks and sang Christmas songs. They loved staying up past their bedtimes and still talk about it today.

    The other thing was from our new church. It was a Christmas morning celebration kit with Bible verses and a CD with music to celebrate Jesus before we opened the gifts. I was amazed at how much the kids liked it (before gifts!) and how they packed it away in the Christmas box to do it again this year.

  15. The hardest part about budgeting is the sheer quantity of family members we have. We live in a combined household with my parents, siblings, and grandmother so things add up quickly whether it’s food, simple gifts, crafts, or even hand-made items. It all adds up so fast! Every year I feel like we get a little better at it, but planning ahead definitely seems like the biggest key. Those last minute plans or gifts that sneak up on your end up costing so much more.

  16. Thanks for getting me going on this! I hope to have a bit of time this afternoon to start tackling the oh-so-important budge!

  17. *Giving should be one of their most vibrant holiday memories.*
    This, to me, says it all.

  18. That picture from Allora Handmade made it into one of my posts years ago. Still love the simplicity of it, and the beauty.
    Thanks for the reminder to get going!

  19. For the past few years, we have realized that we don’t need more STUFF! We’ve simplified a lot. Instead of piles of gifts, we take time to make “coupons” that have special meaning for each other – my daughter will give her dad a coupon to go to get a donut together on Saturday morning, or I will make a coupon for a special one-on-one date with my middle child, etc. We take time to think about it and make it special. The coupons usually are things to do with each other – they may have a small cost – but they are all about the time spent together! In addition, this year – we decided not to exchange gifts – instead we are going to Hawaii! We all agree, a holiday trip is WAY better than more STUFF!

  20. We have developed a plan where we have a set limit, but everything has to be somehow reusable/disposable, etc. Last year I prepared baskets with themes: For example: Snowed In: included fat wood for fire starter, some color scented pine cones for the fire, a stew starter (just throw in the crock-pot), some decadent hot chocolate, and some scone or pumpkin-gingerbread mix. Everything was set for a day to be snowed in. Each basket had a them appropriate for the family and everyone loved them.
    Also, for Project Christmas Child….I pick up things all year long. During those sales in the summer for school I pick up crayons, markers, books, craft supplies, etc and add them to my stash. Picked up my boxes yesterday at church and they are filled. No money to be spent now and some child will smile.

  21. Tsh we also limit the amount of gifts my son receives and we also forgo gifts for each other depending on finances. We also pick names for the adults we have to buy for and set a limit. I also do christmas baking to add to the gifts. We also make a gift donation to a local charity that collects toys for children in need.

  22. Bethany Gillespie says:

    I have spent the last years simplifying, cutting down our toys, and trying to make life more intentional. I was dreading Christmas because of all the plastic clutter that suddenly arrives! This year I have asked my mom to replace all my kids bedding – they’ve each had a hand-me-down set or a very old bedding set for a good couple of years now. This way, although my mom will buy a few extra things the majority of her budget is going on something that will be so practical but fun too.
    We are limiting gifts too this year – I so desire to have thankful, appreciative kids, so having fewer, well chosen gifts is our aim.
    Thanks for all the ideas – can’t wait for more! Xx

  23. Gifts (not just Christmas) are a line item in our monthly budget and I have a separate account set up to hold the money. For Christmas, I make up a spreadsheet in excel with estimated spending amounts for each person/events (this includes cards and stamps) based on available funds. My second column is for tracking what was actually spent. The third column holds gift ideas and a fourth column has the actual gift given. It can be fun to look back at previous years’ spreadsheets to get gift ideas you thought of but didn’t use.
    I start gathering ideas around August/September. Except for making a photo calender for the grandparents, I am finished with all my Christmas shopping already, just have a few “shipments” to do as it gets closer.

  24. Creating a budget for it is such a great idea! It seems like every year I have a few gift ideas in mind before I start shopping, then I buy too much for one child and feel like I should “catch up” with the other child’s gifts. Next thing I know, our checking account is perilously slim!

  25. Since receiving your book Organizing Simplicity for Christmas in 2010, we have made Christmas a mandatory line in our budget. Now because we are cutting down and simplifying the gifts we are giving each other (hubby and me) and others, we are able to send money to the family of our Compassion child. Feels soooooo good.

    Thanks Tsh!

  26. Thank you for these wonderful suggestions. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the excitement (and spending!) of the season. 🙂

  27. Thanks for this! I think the giving portion of your post is really important and something that is often forgotten about. Heifer International ( is a great organization that donates animals to families in need helping to end world hunger and poverty. If you are looking for a charity to donate to Heifer is a great choice!

  28. Planning is key to helping the holidays be not quite so chaotic.
    Thing that is most difficult for us in budgeting is all the last minute stuff that needs to be bought and done. Unfortunately a lot seems to end up being last minute stuff 😉

  29. Hi Tsh, I am a stay at home mommy of an autistic boy, and would love to start blogging and maybe earning a little extra money from it also. I live fairly close to you and was curious if you would consider maybe mentoring me in getting started? If you would be willing to, where we could meet at coffee (coffee addict here) and u could show me the ropes, that would be amazing, thx …. kimmy

  30. A great gift is preserving your family memories on DVD or digital format. This way, family holiday seasons can be kept forever! Its inexpensive and every order can be customized.

  31. Christmas season just a wee bit early—not so early that you brush it off or think I’m one of those crazies, but not so late that it’s really not that helpful.

  32. Thank you for the reminder, encouragement and incentive to make a budget and stick to it… every year I plan to do it, but can never stick to it. This year, we have been saving money from our paycheck specifically for Christmas gifts and froze our credit cards. In mid-November I took out the money and put it into an envelope and have been using that. Even though I may recur to waiting until my bi-weekly paycheck to supplement the money I pre-saved, it is still better than waking up on Christmas 26 with a humongous credit card bill… I can’t wait to see what other steps you suggest towards a more relaxing holiday…

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