For some, the holidays are the most wonderful time of year. For many more, they are the most expensive. However you feel, careful planning now can help you avoid the most common pitfalls of the season and enter the new year with your finances intact.

Draw up a gift list and a budget, together

Who goes into battle without a plan? Check your accounts to see how much cash you have on hand. Then limit your spending so you don’t shop on credit. If you know you’ll be obliged to stagger payments over time, it’s all the more reason to prepare a budget and stick to it.

You can save substantially if your family and close friends are willing to participate in a secret Santa arrangement, where each person draws a name and buys one gift for only that person. You can create wish lists and set limits on how much you’re allowed to spend.

Track your spending — all of it

Are you going out with friends for drinks or meals? Driving to see family? Buying a tree, holiday decorations, or fancy wrapping paper and ribbon? It all costs money. Track purchases and expenses together using an online budgeting tool, a spreadsheet, or just pencil and paper.

Consider how you pay

It may not be possible for you to do the holidays on cash alone. That’s OK. Just realize that not all credit cards are the same. If saving money is your goal, consider a card like the Visa Rewards credit card from Redwood Credit Union, which tends to have a lower interest rate than cards from traditional banks.

Set up a savings plan

If you have the discipline and foresight, set up a savings account dedicated to holiday spending. (If it’s too late for this year, consider establishing one now for next year.) Direct a fraction of your paycheck or regular deposits to this account. Before you know it and without much effort, you’ll have money set aside for your shopping.

Time your purchases

Sales and specials abound during November and December. But thanks to algorithms few people understand, the price of an item can fluctuate daily on the same website.. If you’re after a particular item, check regularly to see if the price fits your budget.

The day after Christmas can be a shopper’s paradise. Even if you can’t make it to stores on December 26th, chances are there will still be plenty of bargains during the last days of the year as stores strive to clear inventory.

Be safe online

If you are shopping online, remember to check the site’s security before you check out. As you enter your personal information and credit card number, confirm the website address starts with “https.”  That “s” is confirmation you’re conducting business in a secure space.

The warm holiday spirit can turn to cold reality when the parties are over and the bills come due. But some responsibility and planning now will serve you well moving into the new year.

Peter Lewis, NerdWallet

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