My mom recently asked what we wanted for Christmas this year. I usually have a list of things to buy in my notebook, so I sent her that list. It was mostly small, fairly affordable items. I’m simply not in the mood to acquire a lot of stuff for the sake of stuff this year. Anything expensive, I’m already considering buying for myself or my husband and I will buy it as a joint gift – like the Wii we’ve been thinking about for over a year. So how do you figure out what you really want this Christmas vs. what you’ve trained to want by holiday season advertisements? Here are a few tips for creating a holiday wish list.

Keep a List
For list keepers like me, this is an obvious one, but it might not be for everyone else. I keep a running list of things I want or things I need to buy all year. For example, I need a new digital cooking thermometer. I listed the brand on my “to buy” list so I can be on the lookout for it. I also add things to my list if I’ve wished I had them a few times. Examples from my wish list this year would be French onion soup bowls and an enameled Dutch oven. Other years, it’s been items like gold hoop earrings or black corduroy pants. It all depends on your needs at the moment.

Do Your Research
For a long time, I opened up the catalogs of cooking equipment and wrote down things that looked fun. Some of those items have never been used. Now I take a different approach to my wish list. In addition to keeping notes throughout the year, I research options for my list. What is the best Dutch oven? What’s the best one in a reasonable price range? Obviously, Le Creuset is the best, but I’m not about to ask anyone to buy me a $300 piece of cookware. Instead I found two $50-60 options that meet my needs and have good reviews. I can feel comfortable putting them on my wish list. Maybe someday I’ll splurge on the expensive version myself.

Don’t Ask for the Sake of Asking
My husband is terrible at creating wish lists. He never wants anything. If he does, he buys it himself. That makes him very hard to shop for. This year, it took me three tries to finally pry a one-item “wish list” out of him that I could convey to my mom. It’s small, affordable, and something he just realized he needs, so he won’t have time to buy it himself.

Be Reasonable in Your Expectations
In the past I’ve put for some very expensive items like a new leather jacket or boots on my wish list. When I do ask for something expensive, it’s something I really do need. I hope to receive it, but I always understand if I don’t.

Remember Who’s Paying
I find that many people buy expensive gifts for their spouses. I don’t really understand this thinking. If you wouldn’t buy it yourself, why would you ask for it as a gift from your spouse? Unless you have separate accounts, you’re still paying for it. I don’t think you need to give or receive expensive gifts to show your love. Some years we skipped the gifts entirely. Other years, we stayed affordable. One year we splurged on each other, but even that was only around $200 each.

This holiday season, it’s especially important to think about your true wants and needs, as well as the cost they bear to other people. No one needs to spend $200 on a gift to show they care. Often a cheap but well-chosen gift means far more. Make your wish list carefully this season and ignore the ads. Gifts you truly want are the gifts that keep on giving.

It’s a short week, so we have a short list of personal finance carnivals this week: just 2. And this will be a short post. Here we go.

Carnival of Personal Finance #180 hosted by Living Almost Large. My post: Year-End Tax Prep. Recommended post:  More tax prep tips at Harvesting Dollars.

Money Hacks Carnival #40 hosted by Steadfast Finances. My post: shoe repair. Recommended post: Reusing and reducing in the living room at Green Panda Treehouse.

Call me a Scrooge, but I hate Black Friday. I’ve only ventured out once, to a mall that wasn’t attractive to the hoards, but I’ve seen the news coverage and the whole thing is horrifying. The holidays are supposed to be about family, not about trampling people while saving masses of money on consumer crap.

Unfortunately, this year I probably will be participating in the Black Friday madness – but from the confines of my computer. My printer has announced its impending death and I need the tax deduction, so I will probably jump on a pre-Black Friday deal tomorrow. After that, I’m sitting this one out. Here are five ways I plan to celebrate Anti-Black Friday. If you’d like to join me, post your Anti-Black Friday ideas in the comments.

Stay Away from Stores – Brick and Mortar and Online
Avoid any store offering specials. Don’t go near the mall or big box stores. Don’t let your mouse stray to the online sales. Set up an email filter to direct all the coupons and offers to a coupon folder and don’t open it. Just don’t shop.

Make Something Delicious
Pick up an extra bag of cranberries and make cranberry nut bread. Bake cookies as a family. Get creative with leftovers. While everyone else is scarfing McDonald’s between hitting sales, you’ll be cozy in the kitchen and enjoying the bounty of the season. In addition to the bread, I’ll be making black bean turkey soup and turkey chili. I plan to freeze half of each batch to enjoy sometime in December or January.

Declare a Movie Day
If you’ve got Netflix or Blockbuster by mail, then hunker down in front of the TV for a day-long movie marathon. Start a fire, cuddle under the blankets, and munch on popcorn, nachos, and other movie food. Choose movies that are fun for everyone.

If it’s cold or wet outside, then nothing is better than curling up with a good book. If you’re reading something as a family, then read a few chapters aloud. If not, choose something thick and fun and then spend the rest of the day lying around with your book. I’ve got a stack of 20 still waiting to be read, so you can probably guess how part of my day will be spent.

Have Fun Outside
If it’s not wet out, then go enjoy the outdoors. Has the first snow fallen? Are the leaves changing? If you can sled or ice skate, by all means do it. If it’s not quite cold enough for that, take a walk or drive out to a nearby wilderness area to observe the outdoor wonderland. Many towns light their holiday trees the day after Thanksgiving, which is another great way to enjoy the day without shopping.

How do you plan to spend Black Friday? Will you be shopping or will you be enjoying a non-retail activity?

This year, that is the question. Do you give someone a gift card because it’s easy, but run the risk that the store will go out of business before they spend it? Or do you give them cash and then wonder if they bought something fun or used it to pay bills? There’s no right or wrong answer, so here are a few gift card dos and don’ts.

Never Give Bank-Branded Gift Cards
Never give a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express gift card. Unlike store gift cards, these cards slowly eat away the balance if it’s not used within a certain time limit. In addition, there are fees to reactivate them and other bugaboos. If you can’t think of anything else to give someone, just give cash. It’s easier to use and has no rules or restrictions.

Choose a Store They Like
My husband and I tend to receive a lot of coffee gift cards. He doesn’t drink any coffee, and I only drink it a few times a year. It takes me months to use a $10 gift card, and I currently have two in my purse. He may re-gift the one he received. If you decide to get someone a gift card, make sure it’s a general purpose store with something for everyone (like Target or Macy’s), or a specialty store they like. I love to read, so bookstore gift cards are tops with me. Amateur chefs or home decorators will love cards for Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel.

If You Can’t Afford the Expensive Gift, Get a Gift Card for that Store
When my husband and I got married, we received several Bed, Bath, and Beyond gift cards. We used the gift cards to complete our registries. Because we could combine several, we didn’t have to pay out-of-pocket for the gifts. I’ve also had occasions where I wanted a $40 item and had a $30 gift card. That allowed me to buy it without feeling guilty about spending a lot of money.

Kids Love Gift Cards
My cousins always love gift cards. I look for stores like Gap, Old Navy, Target, and Toys R Us where they can spend the cards without dipping into their allowance money or hitting up Mom and Dad to cover the rest. And unlike adults who don’t spend gift cards because they don’t have time, kids will spend those gift cards as quickly as possible.

Check the Expiration Date
Gift cards branded by credit card companies can and do expire. Rules for store cards vary by state. In California, it’s against the law to expire store cards (which is why I’ve been hoarding cards to Best Buy for over a year). Other states leave it to store policy. If you’re not sure, ask before you buy the gift card.

Make Sure the Store is Financially Stable
You can’t completely predict these things, but if the store is looking shabby or the news is shouting that the store is in trouble, don’t buy a gift card to it. No one could predict that Sharper Image would go under so quickly, but I don’t think many people were surprised by the demise of Linens ‘n Things – at least not anyone who got married in the last few years or frequents consumer message boards.

When In Doubt – Give Cash
Some people think giving cash is crass, but we appreciated the checks we received for our wedding. If you just can’t decide where to buy a gift card, then cash in a card is simple and straightforward. It doesn’t require the recipient to do anything except put the money in their wallet and spend it as they please. You also don’t have to make a special trip to buy it.

As I’ve said before, if you really can’t figure out what to get someone, then maybe they shouldn’t be on your gift list. However, there are times when I’ve really appreciated receiving a gift card. Other times, it’s left me wondering whether the person knew me at all. If you plan to give gift cards this holiday season, spend a little effort choosing a card to the right store. Don’t default to the store you’re shopping in at the time.

I’ve been making the annual Thanksgiving Drive for 11 years. This year, we’re staying home for the holiday. Unfortunately, this is probably the year when traffic will be lighter! AAA estimates that 2% fewer people will travel this Thanksgiving. That’s a lot when you’re talking bumper-to-bumper traffic. If you do have to get on the road, see my previous post on long drives as well as these tips.

Start Your Thanksgiving Drive Early
The earlier you can leave, the better. If you can leave today or Tuesday, that’s best. Your trip should be pretty smooth. If you can’t leave until Wednesday, try to leave in the morning. For every half hour you delay, you’re tacking at least another 15 minutes onto the trip. I prefer to leave by 1 PM, but now that my husband and I are both gainfully employed, we usually can’t get on the road before 3 PM. That’s okay, but we’d be in big trouble if we waited to leave until 5 or 6.

Pack Everything the Day Before
Have your suitcases, car games, maps, and food packed the night before. Put them near the door so you can toss them in the car as soon as you get home from work. If you have food that must be refrigerated until you leave, put all of it in a plastic bag in the fridge that you can grab and drop into your cooler just before leaving. Make sure the ice pack is at the front of the freezer, not buried under last summer’s leftovers.

Check the Route for Closures
We learned the lesson the hard way two years ago, when some idiot in the permit department approved a major road closure on the route between our apartment and the freeway. It took us an hour to travel the two miles to the freeway because of that closure. Lest you think they must have been doing vital roadwork, I can assure you they weren’t. The road was closed for a promotional event.

If your city has a traffic website, check it for closures and events along your route. You should also check your state transportation website for updates on highway conditions. This is the season of road closures due to weather, so it’s better to know before you hit the road so you can plan a route around the backup.

Set the Radio to the Traffic Station
When you first set-out, tune the radio to your local news and traffic station. They’ll keep you up to date on new breakdowns, accidents, and other incidents. Even if you can’t avoid them, you should make sure you’ve gone to the bathroom and will have enough gas to idle through the traffic jam.

Dress for the Road
When you’ve got a long trip ahead of you, wear loose pants, a non-itchy shirt, and comfortable shoes. You should also pack sweaters and jackets for the stops. Although it can be 70 where we live and 60 at our final destination, the route in between gets down to the 30s and 40s with high winds. I’ve seen people hop out of warm cars in flip flops and shorts, only to realize they have to stand outside in a long bathroom line. If I’m shivering in my coat, how must they feel?

If you take advantage of these five tips as well as my previous tips, your trip will be tolerable. I’m not going to claim it will be pleasant – no one looks forward to the great Thanksgiving Drive.

Another week, another three blog carnivals to share. Hopefully you’ll find some great tips like I did.

First up: Money Hacks Carnival #39 hosted by Moolanomy.  In addition to my post about travel games, I also recommend Christian Personal Finance’s tips for saving money while eating out. Sometimes there’s no avoiding eating out, especially when holiday travel is involved.

Next up: Festival of Frugality #152 hosted by Financial Wellness Project. In addition to my post about holiday cookies, I recommend A Simple Walk’s post on holiday baking.

Finally: Carnival of Personal Finance #179 hosted by MoneyNing. In addition to my post about frugal Thanksgiving centerpieces, I also recommend Uncommon Cents tips for holiday shopping.

Today we take a break from holiday stress for something new. Tax stress! The last two years, my husband and I completed the draft tax forms to make sure our withholding was correct. Both years, it wasn’t, so we made arrangements to fix that. Now is the best time to do a bit of tax prep to ensure that you don’t receive a penalty, or at the very least figure out how much money you need to save before April 15.

Tax Withholding and Penalties
My husband and I are subject to what I consider a marriage penalty, even though it isn’t really. Because we have a high joint income, but no kids or mortgage, we take a larger tax hit than a similar couple with either of those. If we weren’t married, we’d both qualify for the student loan deduction. Because we’re married, we don’t. If we weren’t married, we’d both be in the 25% tax rate. Because we’re married, we’re in the 28%.

Of course, this isn’t the kind of penalty that the IRS levies intentionally, it’s just the way our dear tax system is set up. There’s also another penalty you need to be concerned about: the underpayment penalty. If you don’t withhold enough from your paychecks or file quarterly taxes, you could be subject to a penalty. Fortunately, you escape the penalty if you’ve withheld at least as much as you owed in tax last year. That’s helpful for people who received raises or taxable windfalls, but didn’t correct their withholding. Most states also follow this policy, but make sure if you owe more than you withheld.

Strategies if You Owe More than Expected
Thanks to raises and the windfalls that allowed us to pay off our debt, our tax for the year has nearly doubled. Sadly, that doesn’t mean our income doubled. It means we have to pay self-employment tax on the windfalls.

Last year, we found that we’d underwithheld by accident, so we withheld my last two paychecks in their entirety to cover the difference. This year, we adjusted our withholding, but even that wasn’t enough. We’re again foregoing my paychecks in December, but we’ll still be on the hook for about $8,000 (Federal and State) come April. Here’s our plan to deal with that:

Accelerate deductible expenses. If you were putting off any deductible medical or business expenses, make those expenditures now to reduce your taxable income this year.

Delay bonuses and windfalls. Ask to delay the payment until January if you haven’t yet received the money and you know it will push you into a new tax bracket, like it did us.

Withhold extra now. If your cash cushion allows it, withhold more from your paychecks now. File a new W-4 with payroll indicating the extra amount. Just remember to give them a new form before January 1.

Start saving money. In addition to withholding extra now, we’re also going into mega-saving mode. We need to save $2,000 a month between December and March to cover our taxes. It’s doable, just annoying because it will delay our emergency fund plans.

Sell losing stocks. If you own stock in a taxable account, you’ve probably got some major losses. You can sell some of those stocks (the real dogs) to create a loss that will reduce your taxable income. If you think those stocks will recover, buy them again 31 days later.

There’s no two ways around it: taxes suck and have all sorts of hidden penalties depending on your financial situation. The best you can do is prepare now so you don’t have to charge taxes to your credit card or pay a tax penalty. The draft IRS forms can be found online. Your state may also have draft or final forms available.

This year my mom proposed nixing one Christmas gift exchange. We cancelled another one last year. My husband and I will be out of town for the first of two potential white elephant exchange. I haven’t decided yet whether to join the second one, if it happens. Frankly, I’m relieved to be sitting them out. So when do you say yes or no to a Christmas gift exchange?

Reasons to Say Yes to a Christmas Gift Exchange
You have room for the gift in your budget.
You enjoy shopping for something anyone will enjoy.
You enjoy the suspense of wondering what you’ll get.
You don’t want to upset a long-standing tradition.
Not participating will cause tension in your office.
Not participating will cause tension with your family.

Reasons to Say No to a Christmas Exchange
You can’t afford it this year.
You always re-gift whatever you get the next year.
You don’t particularly enjoy gift exchanges.
Several people in your office routinely sit it out.
It’s not a long-standing tradition, so no offense will be taken.
You’re trying to reduce the amount of stuff you own.

How to Say No to a Gift Exchange
When you decide not to participate in a Christmas gift exchange, you run the risk of offending someone. Some people might call you a Scrooge. Others might accuse you of being cheap. And others will just think you’re weird. Use these strategies to deflect the tension when you say no.

Explain that you’re committed to reducing your debt this year, and every penny counts. Most people can appreciate that you have a larger goal and will want to support you in that.

Explain that you’ve decided to give more to charity this year and will be using your normal exchange allotment for that purpose. How can anyone accuse you of being a Scrooge when you’re helping others? (You can use this excuse even if you can’t afford to give to charity.)

Explain that you’re trying to reduce the amount of stuff you acquire in order to reduce your environmental impact. Again, it’s tough for someone to make you feel guilty for that.

Explain that you’ve already committed to two exchanges and that’s the limit in your budget this year.

Explain that you’ve hated Christmas since you were five because your dad left, your dog died, and your house burned down all on Christmas Day.

If it’s someone you’re close to, be honest. If finances are tight for everyone who participates, that first no might be enough to get everyone to reconsider.

If you can’t say no, then weasel out of it later. This only works with a one-day exchange, not a secret Santa, but you have three options:

  • Claim you forgot to bring it, then hide in your office.
  • Schedule a client meeting for the time of the exchange.
  • Claim you have to take the dog to the vet, attend a school recital, or visit the doctor.

As a worst case scenario, call in sick that day. You can’t participate if you’re not in the office. True, you might miss the holiday lunch, but with all the junk you’ll be eating this holiday season, do you really need more cookies, cake, and pie?

Some Christmas gift exchanges are fun. If you want to participate, here are some ideas for affordable gifts.

  • Dig into the closet for something unused but useful.
  • Visit a craft store to make your own gift basket out of candles and ornaments that are on sale.
  • Visit Target or Wal-Mart to make your own candy basket with discounted candy.
  • Visit Target or Wal-Mart to make a spa basket with discount bath salts and soaps.
  • Visit the markdown endcaps to find close-out deals and super discounts.
  • Check the newspaper for Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons. You’ll find great, affordable gifts there.

When deciding about a Christmas gift exchange, the most important factor to consider is your budget. If you can’t afford it, just say no. If you really need to save money, check out my holiday savings e-book for more tips.

Right now you’ve probably got one kind of cobbler on your mind: apple. Today I’m going to talk about the other kind. Not peach. The kind who repairs your shoes. I heard a report on NPR this morning about the booming business cobblers are doing, and it reminded me that I picked up a pair of shoes from my local cobbler just this weekend. Instead of buying new shoes, my local shoe repair place saved me $20 and a pair of shoes I love.

Types of Shoes that Can Be Repaired
Most people consider shoe repair only for the most expensive shoes, but you can get affordable shoes repaired too. My local shop repairs these types of shoes, regardless of the original price:

  • High heels
  • Men’s dress shoes
  • Women’s flat dress shoes
  • Casual shoes
  • Loafers
  • Lace-ups
  • Boots

What a Shoe Repair Place Can Do
The majority of shoe repair involves replacing soles and fixing heels, but they can do more. They can also repair luggage, handbags, and leather jackets. Some of their shoe repair jobs include:

  • Resole, including half-soles, full soles, and three-quarter soles
  • Repair a broken heel
  • Replace plastic heel soles with rubber
  • Protect heels with a scuff guard
  • Extend the life of a leather sole with a sole guard
  • Restore the original color
  • Change the color
  • Shine them
  • Stretch heels and toes
  • Replace Velcro
  • Replace or repair zippers

My Shoe Repair Experience
I have a pair of Skechers that I love, but the insoles were worn out and the Velcro straps weren’t holding. I spent weeks checking my nearby discount shoe store for a replacement pair, but they never had my size and the style has changed slightly. I much prefer my original style.

I drive past an old-fashioned shoe repair place every day and one day the sight of it triggered an idea. I took me shoes in to find out if he could fix the Velcro. He certainly could, and for only $10. I stopped at CVS to pick up a pair of insoles, too. For a total of $20, my favorite weekend shoes are good as new. A replacement pair would have cost at least $20.

When Not to Repair Shoes
There are certain shoes you shouldn’t repair, like heavily-used athletic shoes. I buy new gym shoes every six months because the insoles are completely worn out by then. I need much more support and cushioning than even the best gel insole can provide. Even though new gym shoes cost around $50, it’s worth it to keep my feet strong and injury-free.

It may not be worth it to repair cheap shoes, either. If the cost of the repair is more than you paid for the shoes, then it’s probably best to buy a new pair of shoes. Of course, it’s a different story if they’re designer shoes you picked up in a thrift store.

Now that I’ve had one pair of shoes repaired, I’m checking my closet to see what else needs fixing. If it can be repaired instead, I’ll save money and be helping the environment by reducing waste. Everyone wins.

Even if you’re not giving food gifts, you probably still have a lot of holiday baking to do. Between contributions to various parties and holiday meals, this is the season when nearly every family bakes. Fortunately, the grocery stores have noticed this trend and offer stupendous deals on baking supplies in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Stock up this week!

Where to Find Deals
If you have a LOT of baking to do, consider stocking up at a store like Costco. Experts say that flour keeps for six months, but I’ve used flour that was two years old without issue. That said, don’t buy a 50 pound bag if you can only reasonably use a 10 pound bag in the next year. Instead, check the store circulars in your region for stupendous deals.

If you get the Sunday paper, this weekend’s inserts included several coupons for baking supplies. I also used Hot Coupon World to find printable coupons and compare the deals at my local supermarket. Here are some of the deals I’ve found at my local Ralph’s the last two weeks:

C&H sugar, 5 lbs: $2.50, less a 35 cent coupon (doubled to 70 cents)
Carnation evaporated milk: 50 cents each, less a coupon for $1 off 2 (free!)
Libby pure pumpkin, 15 oz.: 2 for $4, less a coupon for $1 off 2
Eagle condensed milk: 1.50 cents, less a 55 cent coupon (doubled to $1)
Brown sugar, 1 lb.: 99 cents
Nestle chocolate chips: $2 bag, less a $1 off 3 coupon.

How to Buy Baking Supplies On Sale
The first step is figuring out what you need. Get out your recipes and note all the ingredients. You may have some on hand, but consider replacing them with sale items if this year’s baking will empty your supply.

Next, go online to compare ad circulars and hunt for coupons. You may have to sign up at some manufacturer websites, so have a Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail address handy. Also make sure you have an inkjet printer. I haven’t been able to print coupons with my laser printer, but our inkjet works fine.

Now it’s time to go to the store. If you walk into any supermarket, you’ll find large displays of the most popular baking items near the front. Although you can check there, they don’t necessarily show the prices. Instead go to the aisle where those items are normally kept to compare prices. Compare the sale prices (when coupons are factored in) to the prices of store brands. The store brand is usually cheaper, but it might not be if they’re having a rock-bottom deal and you have a coupon.

Use the calculator in your phone, or a small hand calculator, to calculate the unit price of each item you’re comparing.

Be especially mindful of mix and match deals. For example, right now you can buy 10 of certain marked 50 cent items to get $5 off your order at Ralph’s. They also have deals for $1, $1.50, $2, and $2.50. The key is that you have to get 10 of the items at the specific price point to get the deal. Take advantage of these deals to stock up on baking supplies and household supplies, which are also included in these specials. If you can combine these deals with coupons, you’ll save a bundle. You’ll save even more if your store isn’t stingy with the doubling like the stores in my area.

When Do Prices Go Up?
The prices will rise after Thanksgiving, so stock up before Thanksgiving while you can. If you miss the pre-Thanksgiving sales, start checking the shelves after Christmas when stores want to unload the excess supply that didn’t sell. You can buy it cheap and save it for the next holiday season.

I don’t actually plan to use all of my supplies this holiday season, but I know that I will manage to use everything up within the next year or so. I’ll be a lot more willing to bake on a whim knowing I got great deals on my supplies.

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