If you’ve ventured into a store recently, you’ve no doubt been assaulted by Halloween decorations. Which is fine, it is almost October. But if you continued around to the other side of the display, you may have also been confronted by Christmas decorations. That’s right, the holiday shopping season has begun. In fact, my Joann’s mailer already has Christmas decorations at a discount! So, apparently, the holiday discounting season has also begun.

It’s tempting to just hide your head and wait until December when it feels like Christmas. (As I write this, it is 85 degrees outside. I don’t live in Australia, so that’s definitely not Christmas weather. Although, I live in Los Angeles, so I guess it could be. But I digress.)

Create Your Gift List Now
Don’t hide your head. Take action. Determine your holiday budget now, before you’re swayed by all the commercials, temptingly wrapped “stocking stuffers”, and the spirit of generosity. If you do it now, you can be realistic.

Then, with your budget firmly in mind, create the list of gifts you’ll be giving people, along with a dollar limit. I usually wait until Thanksgiving to ask what my younger cousins want, but I know the budget way in advance, so when they tell me this year’s gift card request I can purchase one in that amount. (My cousins are teens and tweens. They want gift cards, not toys.)

If you’re planning to buy any big ticket items, start scouting out sales now, but wait to buy until the Black Friday and pre-Black Friday sales start, because that’s when you’ll see true deals. Scouting now will help you get an idea of what a great price is. No, you won’t score an iPad for $100, but you might get a great deal on an Android tablet come Thanksgiving.

Keep an Eye Out for Gifts
As you’re out an about, keep an eye out for gifts on your list. Once you’ve bought them, do not keep shopping for that person just in case you find something “better.” Better usually means more expensive, or extra. Be firm with yourself. Being generous doesn’t mean you have to go into debt.

Start Making Gifts Now
Many people have the intention of making gifts, which is great and affordable, if you start now (except for baked goods.) If you wait until December to start making gifts, you will probably find yourself among the last minute holiday shoppers because the gift isn’t ready in time.

My husband and I have never been the type to think we need to spend hundreds of dollars on each other at Christmas. In fact, many years we’ve opted not to exchange gifts and instead bought something big jointly, like our trip to Belize or a Wii. If you and your spouse plan to exchange gifts, make sure you agree on a budget beforehand.

Spend a Lot or a Little?
Some couples view holiday gifts as a way to show each other how much they love and appreciate each other, which is sweet. But you should show it all year round. Of course, there are times when a big gift is a grand gesture on Christmas. My dad gave my mom her first pair of diamond earrings about five years ago, after thirty-five years of marriage. Opening those on Christmas morning meant so much more. However, that’s not every year. There have many years of practical gifts between them.

It doesn’t really matter what you spend, it depends on the thoughtfulness of the gift. If it’s something your spouse really needs or wants, but would never buy themselves, then this is the time to get it. However, if the reason your spouse hasn’t bought it is because they think it’s too expensive, then make sure it doesn’t exceed your agreed upon budget.

How to Set a Budget
Do you already have a gift in mind or are you the type to go shopping on Christmas Eve in search of just the right thing? I’m a planner, so my plan would be to choose a budget, and then find a gift within that budget. In years we do give each other gifts, we usually spend about $50 on each other. No, that’s not a lot, but we tend to buy the big items throughout the year. Usually our Christmas gifts to each other are fun little things, like a book we saw on Jon Stewart or a new Wii game we’ll both enjoy.

To set a budget, start by thinking about your total holiday budget. Now figure out what you should spend on other people. Now consider the amount you’ve spent on each other in past years. Use all those as a guideline to set your spending on each other.

Keep that number firmly in mind while out shopping. You don’t have to spend it all, but you should also try not to go over it by much. If it’s something really special, save it for a birthday or anniversary. The exception, of course, is that once-in-a-lifetime gift. That shouldn’t be part of the budget, but you should be sure you can pay cash for it. The once-in-a-lifetime gift becomes less special if your spouse has to spend five years helping to pay it off!

What Are You Spending?
What are you planning to spend on your spouse this year? Are you in the $500 camp or the $50 camp or the $0 camp?

This is coming a little late in the season for some, but it may help those attending upcoming college and high school graduations. I still remember some of my favorite or most useful graduation gifts. If you’re trying to figure out what to get someone, here are my top five for high school and top five for college.

Top 5 High School Graduation Gifts
These five are intended for high schoolers heading off to college, but they could also work for new college graduates.

Car Maintenance Kit
Get a sturdy zippable bag and load it with a bottle of motor oil (ask the graduate’s parents what type the car needs), a gas gift card, jumper cables, an emergency blanket, an orange reflector triangle, and an emergency cell phone charger. I was given a pair of jumper cables and a screwdriver for my graduation and I still have them. I’ve used the jumper cables for myself and for friends who didn’t have them.

Where’s Mom Now that I Need Her?
I actually bought myself this book when I left for college. It’s a great guide for common tasks like laundry tips, stain removal, cleaning advice, and recipes. Although the recipes are outdated, I still use the stain removal guide all the time. Buy the binder version so it will last.

My aunt gave me a suitcase for graduation that I used for at least ten years until the wheels were about to fall off. I used it for a graduation trip as well as trips home at Christmas and spring break. Choose a good quality one that isn’t black, but don’t spend a fortune. It will take a beating!

Oh the Places You’ll Go
It’s more inspirational than useful, but who doesn’t love a sweet story by Dr. Seuss?

Laundry Kit and Quarters
Mom won’t be around to do laundry anymore, so a laundry kit will come in very handy. Start the new graduate off with a laundry bag for toting the stuff down to the laundry room, two rolls of quarters, a big box of detergent, a stain stick or spray, and fabric softener.

Top 5 College Graduation Gifts
It seems that many students are returning home after graduation, but some will move into their first apartments, so there are gift options for both types of student.

Basic Cookbook
Something like “How to Cook Everything” or a basic Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. I still have my Betty Crocker cookbook (two, in fact). Both Betty and Better Homes are fantastic for basic recipes, cook times, and basic techniques. I like the ring-bound editions with glossy paper that hold up well in the kitchen. They also have lots of pictures, which is great for a beginning cook. How to Cook Everything is more comprehensive, but heavier and a little harder to use.

Basic Cookware
My college pots and pans were wrecked by my roommates, so I needed to start over when I graduated. Your graduate may not have cookware at all, so start them off with one or all of these affordable essentials: aluminum saucepan with lid, 9 or 10-inch non-stick skillet or sauté pan, 4-quart aluminum pot with lid (for pastas, etc.), wooden or nylon spatula, wooden spoon, 8-inch chef’s knife, cutting board, mixing bowl, cookie sheet, liquid measuring cup, can opener.

Leather Folio and Pen
When I graduated, I received an engraved pen and leather folio that I used for job interviews. I still do, in fact. The folio looks professional and keeps my resume copies from getting crumpled.

Target or Bed Bath & Beyond Gift Card
You never know what else they need to set up the new apartment, so a Target or Bed Bath and Beyond gift card is a great idea. They’ll be able to stock up on towels, sheets, furniture, a lava lamp, or whatever else they might need.

Who doesn’t love cash? It’s easy to give, and always appreciated.

Today, the Federal Reserve announced long-awaited new rules governing gift cards. For some of you, your state laws already provided these protections, but now they will be extended to all consumers as of August 22, 2010. The new rules also apply to network cards (bank-issued cards), which many state laws do not. If you’ve got gift cards in your wallet, here’s what you need to know.

Gift Card Expiration Dates Extended
In some states, gift cards expired a little as a year after being issued. The new rules require that gift cards be valid for five years from the date of issue OR the last date the card was loaded with funds, whichever is later. So, if you filled up a coffee card and then forgot about it, you may still be able to use it a few years later.

Inactivity Fees Curtailed
Currently some states bar inactivity fees on gift cards and other states don’t. Under the new rules, inactivity fees can’t start accruing for 12 months after the card has been inactive. In addition, only one fee per month can be charged. The fees can’t be charged unless the card holder has been given clear and conspicuous notification. In most cases, this will be disclosures on the gift cards themselves. Unfortunately, the Fed didn’t limit the amount of the fees that can be charged.

Some Cards Already in Compliance
Perhaps trying to avoid new regulations or sensing they were coming anyway, some retailers and network card issuers have already moved to eliminate inactivity fees and extend expiration dates. If you’re buying a card after August 22, be sure to ask when inactivity fees start to accrue and what amount is charged.

Use Up Gift Cards Quickly
As always, your best course of action is to use gift cards as soon as you receive them. If you receive a non-store card, use it for groceries or something similar as soon as you receive it. If you’re saving up for a major purchase, you can then simply take those funds from your grocery budget and put them in your savings for later.

I ran into a problem using the small balance left on an Amex gift card I received – when the cashier swiped it, the system didn’t reply with the balance due and instead rejected the transaction because it exceeded the balance. I had to tell the checker the exact balance so she could charge exactly that amount to the card. If you have a balance left on a network card, write the exact amount on the card and stick it to the front of the card on a post-it. If you have a balance left on a store gift card, the store’s register should be able to read the balance correctly, but it’s still nice to know what’s left on the card so you don’t spend more than you need to.

If you’ve visited any store at any point since December 26, you’re no doubt aware that Valentine’s Day is coming. Even worse, this year it falls on a Sunday and a holiday weekend. The pressure will be high to go romantic and go big. But I say ignore the pressure and go small, if you go at all. Here are five more frugal ways to celebrate V-Day.

Vow “Just Cards” This Year
Maybe a chocolate or two, if you must. If you both make a vow that it will be just cards, and promise to keep that vow, and agree that no one will be offended if you don’t get “a little something extra,” this vow should keep your money firmly in your pocket. So ladies, if you go “just cards,” don’t decide to pick up “just a little something,” because you know that will just result make him feel bad.

Make a Nice Home-Cooked Meal
As much as I try to ignore the holiday, it’s still ingrained on me that I should do something. Usually I make small steaks (3-4 ounces each, not 22) with a red wine sauce, thin-sliced roasted potatoes, and a walnut-gorgonzola salad. Served with wine and a scrumptious dessert, and it’s perfect. And since I serve small steaks, we’re not too exhausted for after-dinner activities.

Eat Out on a Different Night
There will probably be more people choosing this option this year, but if you’re set on going out, try Friday or Saturday rather than Sunday. Don’t try to go out Monday, though. It’s a holiday, so you really will be eating the slimmest of the slim pickings!

Rent a Romantic Movie
After eating your home-cooked meal and reading your cards, you might want to settle in for a romantic movie. If you have Netflix or Blockbuster Online, adjust your queues now to ensure that something appropriate to the evening arrives that week. Appropriate to the evening depends entirely on your tastes! It might be a horror movie, a comedy movie, a drama, it doesn’t matter so long as you can snuggle up while watching it.

Go Out to Breakfast
Instead of making a big “to do” about dinner, go out for a nice breakfast. It is a Sunday, so you may have some competition from church-goers, but it’s also brunch day, so you should be able to make brunch reservations somewhere. Then you’ll be free to enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend without the pressure of ROMANCE!

As you can see, I’m not a huge fan of V-Day. I was into it when I was younger, but then I got tired of the crowds and forced feeling of it all. The Valentine’s Day that coincided with the All-Star basketball game being played in Los Angeles was the last straw. I may never go out on V-Day again!

Want more ideas for avoiding the day? Check out my previous posts on cheap Valentine’s Day ideas and five ways to save money on Valentine’s Day.

Happy holidays! After today, the blog will be dark until Tuesday. I’m taking a few days off to relax. I’m done my shopping, baking, and wrapping, but here are a few quick tips if you’ve still got work to do:

When shopping for last-minute gifts, remember your budget!

Need a last-minute gift and don’t want to shop? Try these quick gift ideas.

Suddenly in the mood to bake? Try these cookie recipes.

Now put down the wallet and eat, drink, and be merry.

It’s the holiday season, which means my husband and I have already come into possession of several gift cards. We don’t want to let them go to waste, so I’m creating a gift card log and keeping it in my notebook so I can keep track of the cards as I spend them, and remember which cards I still have.

How to Make a Gift Card Log
Making the log is simple. All you need is a piece of paper that you can keep with your cards or in your wallet. Make three columns (four if you live in a state where gift cards expire)
Remaining balance
Expiration Date

For example, mine would look like:
Best Buy $50 $50
Coffee Bean $20 $20

Then as I use each card, I’ll cross out the old remaining balance and enter a new one.

To start, gather all your cards in one place. Spread them out on the table and list them in alphabetical order.

Pool Your Gift Cards
If you have several gift cards for one store and bank gift card or mall gift card, pool them to get the most bang for your buck. For example, one year my husband and I both received $50 Best Buy cards. We then bought new cell phones, so we got two $30 rebate cards (good anywhere.) We used all of them at once to buy a Wii.

Use Credit Card Gift Cards for Groceries and Gas
You have to be careful with credit card gift cards because they do expire and they start running down the balance with nasty maintenance fees. If you can’t pool your cards together for a big purchase, then use bank gift cards quickly. I like to use them at the grocery store because their machines are good at taking split payments. Then, if I want to get myself something nice, I just take the gift card’s value from my grocery budget and put it into another line item’s budget.

Use Store Cards Quickly, Too
If you can, try to use all of your store cards in January, or even at the late December after-Christmas sales. Some of these stores may have been hanging on long enough to get through the holiday season, but may close in 2010. If they close, your gift card is worthless. So, if you’ve got a card for a chain or independent store that seems like it might be in trouble, use your gift card pronto!

Trade Unwanted Cards
It happens every year. People are given cards for stores where they simply don’t shop (example: coffee gift cards for people who don’t drink coffee.) But you don’t have to get stuck. Talk to your friends and co-workers and offer an exchange – their unwanted gift card of an equal value (or value plus cash if there’s a difference) in exchange for yours. That way you both get something you can use. You can also do this online, but most of those sites charge a fee. My way is free.

This year we’re ready to use our cards in a jiffy (except that darn coffee card). We’ve already lined up our stores and made a list of movies we want to see (we got a lot of movie cards this year). January 2010 is looking to be a good month!

So your holiday season is chugging along merrily, and then you get thrown for a curveball. You might get invited to a last-minute gift exchange, or realize that you’re supposed to bring a gift to a party you were invited to long ago. But you don’t have any extra gifts lying around. You can come up with something in a flash with some things you have around the house or in the kitchen.

Homemade toffee is fast, easy, and delicious. If you don’t know what to give, cook a batch and then break it up into a tin, or even a square gift box lined with cellophane or plastic wrap. Trust me, it will all get eaten.

Print out this easy toffee recipe just to have it handy. You might want to mix a batch up for no reason at all.

Peppermint Bark
You can find tins of peppermint bark all over the place. Williams-Sonoma sells it for $28 a pound! And while I’ll admit that their peppermint bark is nothing short of bliss, that’s pretty steep for candy. So, make your own, either for yourself or for a last-minute gift. As with the toffee, package it in a tin or a box lined with cellophane or plastic wrap. If you want to get real fancy and have the time, mix toffee and peppermint bark in the same box. Try this recipe from Epicurious. If you don’t have peppermint extract and can’t find it, one commenter suggests using mint chocolate chips. You can also skip the peppermint extract, for a slightly less full flavor. You can also substitute different types of chocolate. I like dark chocolate, so I’d use that instead of bittersweet.

Wrapped Candle
Most people have lots of candles around. I have many that I received as gifts, but never opened. So dig into your closet to find a wrapped candle, or at least a candle that hasn’t been burned and isn’t dusty. Wrap with ribbon or cellophane and you’re good to go.

Have you baked several batches of cookies already? Assemble some in a box or bag and you’ve got a ready-made gift.

Mix in a Jar
These are always popular. Start by figuring out what you already have on hand, then visit this page to find a mix that will go with what you have.  Layer it all into a mason jar, add a label with instructions, and tie with a bow.

As I’ve said before, truffles are my go-to gift. They’re easy to assemble, but most people think you did tons of work and are nothing short of amazed.

Most people will happily receive any of these gifts and never realize it was a last-minute gift. One caveat if you know people with food allergies: make sure you give them something they can eat. If you give cookies to a person who can’t have wheat (unless they’re wheat-free), they’ll know you weren’t thinking of them when you made the gift.

We’re ramping up to the holidays, so who has time to read blogs? My feeds overrunneth!

So I’ll keep this short and sweet and tell you how to get free stuff!

Win One of 10 Flip Video Cameras
First, make sure you enter AskMrCreditCard’s content to win one of 10 Flip video cameras from the good people at Amex (we love Amex.) To enter, you have to subscribe to his newsletter and post a comment on the contest page explaining “What is the savviest way you’ve made your money work harder for you this holiday season?” He’ll announce the winner on 12/21. It could be an early Christmas gift you get for yourself!

Free Shipping Day is Today, December 17!
It’s finally Free Shipping Day. As of this writing (4 hours before it starts), 712 websites were participating. Some have restrictions or minimums for Free Shipping Day, but at least half offer free shipping today, with guaranteed delivery by Christmas, with no restrictions. If you’ve got gifts left to buy, make sure you check the Free Shipping Day website to get in on the promotion.

‘Tis the season of the Christmas cookie basket. That delicious treat that features sinful treats you probably don’t get the rest of the year. If you’re a master baker, put this on your gift list for an easy, fun treat no one will dislike. If you have kids, this is an affordable gift they can make for teachers and relatives alike. It’s the one thing I can guarantee no one will want to return to the store.

Cookie Basket Supplies
To make a proper cookie basket, you’ll need a few things:
Baskets or tins
Cellophane wrap
Decorative ribbon
Colored Saran or plastic wrap
Cookies and fudge

Visit a dollar store or Michael’s to stock up on the non-baking items. You can find cute, cheap baskets that aren’t decorated for Christmas, but no one will notice once they’re filled with cookies. If you need to make smaller gifts, pick up festive mugs at the dollar store.

Choosing Your Cookies
First, determine how many cookie baskets you’ll need. I usually like to put 2 dozen assorted cookies in each basket. Multiply 24 times the number of baskets you need to get the total number of cookies. Now choose five different holiday cookie recipes. I usually like to make snickerdoodles, candy cane cookies, stained glass cookies, chocolate thumbprints, and fudge.

Most cookie recipes make 2-4 dozen cookies, so five recipes is enough for 5-10 baskets. If you have kids, make figuring out how many batches of each recipe you need to bake to get enough cookies into a fun math challenge.

Shop for Supplies
If you didn’t stock up on baking items during Thanksgiving, you still can. Create a shopping list from your recipes, then visit the store with the best sale on baking supplies for everything you need.

Set Aside a Weekend to Bake
If you’re working alone, you can probably blast it out in one day, but if you don’t want to kill yourself, spend a few hours each weekend day baking. Then package them up in the evening. Start with the most complicated recipe and work down to the simplest. If you’re making a recipe with nuts and someone with a nut allergy is on your list, make it last to avoid contamination. Always keep those completely separate from the other cookies.

Package the Cookies
This is the last step. First, put a few layers of tissue paper on the bottom of the basket or tin as a cushion. Line the basket with colorful plastic wrap. Add about 5 of each type of cookie. Consider dropping in a couple candy canes or chocolate kisses for color and variety. Fold the plastic wrap over the top, then fold the tissue over it. If you’re using a tin, put the cover on. If you’re using a basket, set it on the center of a large sheet of cellophane. Pull the cellophane up over the sides so the corners meet. Gather the corners together and tie a bow around the bundle.

Freezer Tip
If you’ll be distributing the baskets over a couple weeks, freeze the cookies instead of packaging them all up at once. Lay the baked cookies flat on cookie sheets and put the sheets in the freezer for about 90 minutes. Then arrange the frozen cookies in large freezer bags or boxes. Label each one with the recipient’s name. Take a bag out of the freezer the night before you need to wrap it. Then just arrange the contents in the basket or tin and wrap it nicely. They’ll be as fresh and tasty as they were the day you made them.

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