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 holiday travel delays. From closed roads to cancelled flights, it can be challenging to travel anywhere during the winter holidays, but millions of us will do it anyway. I’ve posted several times about planning for holiday travel, but this post is more specific: how to plan for nearly inevitable holiday travel delays.

Preparing for Road Delays
A freak winter storm, heavy fog, a rockslide, an avalanche, icy conditions, or an accident can all result in closed roads. If you have to drive this holiday, take these few precautions.

Research Backroads in Advance
You don’t want to take a last-minute mountain pass that you’ve never driven before in the dead of winter. Research your roads carefully in advance. Look for alternates that are near the main highway and avoid passes through high elevations. If your map says “closed during winter,” strike it from your list. If you’re not sure about a road’s status, call the highway service to confirm before you leave.

Monitor the Weather
Check the weather daily before your trip. If a storm develops, consider leaving a day early or a day late to avoid the middle of the storm. If you must drive on a stormy day, leave early enough to make sure you get through the worst part while it’s still daylight. Once it’s dark and temperatures drop further, even major roads could close.

Pack Snacks and Blankets
You never know when you might get stuck in an hours-long backup. If it gets bad enough, you might have to turn off the car to avoid running out of gas on the highway. So, bring snacks, car games, and blankets with you in the car. If you don’t use them, they’ll at least make nice pillows so the passengers can close their eyes for a few minutes.

Avoid Eating or Drinking Too Much
You don’t want to get dehydrated, but avoid eating or drinking heavily just in case you get stuck in a backup between bathrooms. If traffic is truly snarled, it could be hours before you can get out of the car again.

Keep Your Cell Phone Charged
Keep your cell phone charger in the car and make sure your phone is charged so you can call for help in a worst-case scenario. Also bring a list of hotels along the route in case the road is so bad you have to pull off for the night. Call ahead to book a room as soon as you know you’ll be stranded. Don’t wait until you get there or they might be sold out.

Preparing for Air Delays
On top of the usual spate of winter storms closing airports and delaying flights, now British Airways has announced a holiday strike. While I don’t expect there will be additional strikes, you should be prepared for other possibilities.

Bring Your Cell Phone and a List of Numbers
If your flight is cancelled, don’t get in that long line of people waiting to rebook. Instead, call the airline’s reservations number (which you should have with you) from your cell phone. They can probably arrange new flights faster than you’d get to the front of the line. If all flights will be cancelled for days, call hotels, car rental companies, or Amtrak from your cell phone rather than waiting in line. You’ll have much better luck. True, you might not get a free voucher, but it’s better than sleeping on the airport floor if they run out of vouchers before you reach the front of the line.

Bring Snacks and Entertainment
Most airlines don’t serve free food anymore, so you probably already packed some snacks, but pack extras for winter travel. My family was once stranded at the Philadelphia airport on a wintry Sunday for ten hours. The airport actually ran out of food. My dad bought the last pizza, and sold our extra slices to other passengers (for less than the airport’s price). Pack books or games to help pass the time between those long delays, too. Save your DVDs for the flight where you’ll be able to access a plug. Don’t bet on snagging one of the few airport plugs if flights are delayed.

Bring Your Patience
Flight delays are the worst, but there’s really nothing you can do except roll with it. Don’t snap at the workers or other passengers. You’re all in this together and it’s the holidays. Try to be pleasant and hopefully others will do the same.

Pack Essentials in Your Carry-on
Between delayed flights and crowded planes, the likelihood of losing your bags increases. So, pack a change of clothes, medications, and a few other essentials in your carry-on just in case. It’s not like you won’t use them at some point on your trip.

Everyone hopes for a smooth trip, but it’s better to be prepared than to be surprised. I’ve never regretted taking those few extra steps when preparing for my annual trek over the mountain pass or down to the airport.

‘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.

My husband and I didn’t have time to buy a dining room table before hosting Thanksgiving this year. Fortunately, we found a creative solution for this conundrum: the patio table. Had we had the 11 people we originally expected, rather than the 6 we had, we would have used the patio table plus our kitchen table.

The Art of Doing with Less
Obviously, I didn’t want to eat outside in November, and I also didn’t want my guests to feel like we were at a patio table. To protect my floors, I put dollar store baby mittens on the feet of the table. I used kitchen chairs and two folding chairs rather than patio chairs. Then, I laid a nice tablecloth over the top. We dressed it up with my wedding candleholders and a few fresh flowers. I even brought out my nice white napkins I received for my wedding. It looked and felt fancy, even if we were eating at a patio table.

The key to getting by with less is to dress up what you do have so that it looks nice. If you only have a small tree, dress it up with the nicest of your ornaments. If you only have a few holiday candles, put out an assortment of candleholders in different sizes and shapes, but similar colors. A trio usually looks beautiful. If you have extra ornaments, fill a glass vase or bowl with colored balls. Hang large wooden ornaments from doorknobs.

Focus On Being Festive
Just because you don’t have a house full of ornaments or can’t afford a major gourmet feast, you can still entertain with less. Instead of buying expensive candles and favors, put your budget into the food. Plan your menu around sale items. Serve finger foods rather than a full meal. Make it a cocktail party rather than a dinner. Bake cookies, fix appetizers based on bacon, meatballs, and cheese, and serve eggnog, brandy, and wine. Then crank up the holiday tunes and get ready to have fun. Your guests won’t notice the lack of gourmet fare if you don’t point it out.

Raid Your Leftover Christmas Cards
This year I scored 75 cards for $6.99 via a timely Woot sale, but for the past several years I’ve simply raided my stash of leftover cards. If you regularly send out cards, you should have a few left from each season. You may also have received cards from various charities you’ve donated to in the past. Match all those up to envelopes and then all you need to buy are stamps. Trust me, no one will remember if they receive the same holiday card two years in a row.

Give Group Gifts
Your gift budget goes further when you give a group gift. For example, my husband and I are joining forces to give my sister and her husband something they really want, but that is more than the individual budgets we’ve set aside for them. My sister and I have merged our money to get a better gift for my mom or dad in the past. My sister, my mom, and I also go in together on group gifts for my cousins, who would otherwise receive three small gifts. Now they get one gift they really want. We all spend affordably, but no one feels like they got gypped.

Remember the Reason for the Season
Amidst the shopping frenzy of years’ past, the reason for the season seems to have gotten lost. The true meaning of the holiday season is slightly different for everyone, but in general it means gathering with family and friends in a joyful atmosphere. So next time you’re stressed for a gift, just remember what the Beatles said: All you need is love.

First there was Black Friday, which has been around for a long time, but wasn’t a huge epic world’s bestest ever deal until about a decade ago. Then came the internet, and three years ago Cyber Monday was born. This year it’s been expanded to Cyber Week. You guessed it: that makes me stabby.

Let’s Stop the Fake Hype
I get it. Retailers are desperate. They got used to people buying too much stuff and spending too much and going into too much debt. Now we’ve stopped cold turkey and retailers don’t know what to do with themselves. So, the deals they are a comin’.

But why do we have to put a fake name on it? Why call it “cyber week,” which might as well mean, “Hey, it’s December, with three weeks to go before Christmas and you have presents to buy. Can we entice you with a sale?” But that’s too long and clunky, so they make up this fake story that this is the week when everyone is shopping and every store is offering deals, and you should be taking them up on it.

The truth is Cyber Monday isn’t the busiest online shopping day of the year. Green Monday is (the first Monday in December.)

But, Yes, You Can Find Good Deals on Cyber Days
Yes, you can find good deals on these “cyber days.” We didn’t take advantage of any Black Friday deals because we value our lives, but we did snap up a $400 laptop to replace our 7-year-old laptop at a Sunday “pre-Cyber-Monday” sale. That same laptop was still on sale for the same price yesterday. I also took advantage of a Cyber Monday deals to snag discounts and free shipping on gifts people wanted, as well as on necessary software for that new laptop at more than 50% off. I didn’t, however, go on an online shopping binge or spend more than I budgeted to take advantage of the deals. And I still only bought the items on my Christmas list and household needs list, but for less than I would have in the store.

The Trick is That the Deals Go On
The Free Shipping offer is already good for the whole month. True, the hottest items won’t be marked down, and the markdowns may be smaller as the season progresses. On the other hand, the hot items were never marked down and you shouldn’t be buying something just because it’s marked down. Cyber Monday has been extended to Cyber Week to bring you new deals every day. Next year it will probably be all month long.

The Best Holiday Shopping Strategy
Find the right gift, find the best price you can during the time you’ve chosen to shop, and then stop. Don’t go back to the mall or back to the online stores hunting for more, better deals. You got the right gift, the recipient will like it, you’re done. I’ve bought roughly a third of my gifts already. I’m just waiting on a few gift lists, and should be able to complete my shopping online the next day. I aim to be done by December 13.

Did you get sucked in by Black Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? Did you log on and shop on Cyber Monday, Cyber Tuesday or Cyber Every Other Day of the Week? Don’t you wish we could just go back to calling it the “holiday shopping season” and forget the hype? Really, do the retailers make more money with these huge deals and the push to shop early? I stop shopping when I’m done, but maybe other people return to the stores for more deals.

I’ve written many, many posts on affordable holidays and holiday shopping. Why I even compiled an entire e-book on the topic. But, if you’re revving up for a big shop, here are my five quick tips for keeping your holiday shopping affordable.

Carry Your List with You at ALL Times
Put your Christmas gift list in your wallet or purse so it’s ready whenever you spy a potential gift. Consult your list and your budget. If it’s not in the budget, it’s not going home with you. If it’s in the budget and it’s a better gift than the item you already had in mind for recipient, then buy it and mark that person off your list.

Note Online Prices on Your List
In addition to name, gift, and budget, I also write online prices on my list, with shipping and tax added where applicable. That way I can determine whether the item I see in a store is cheaper than the item I see online. If it’s not, I go home to order it. Order your gifts by about 12/10 to ensure it will get to you or to the recipient in time. Or, if it’s a specialty retailer participating in Free Shipping Day, wait until 12/17 to order.

Remember, Stores Will Run Low This Year
If you see a perfect gift and it’s in your budget, snap it up. In past years, you could wait until later to markdowns, but the stores majorly reduced their stock this year. Most will not be offering major markdowns as the season progresses, they’ll simply be running out of stuff. Don’t be like Joey and Chandler and present your friends with gifts from the gas station because you waited to shop.

Set Aside One Weekend Morning or Mid-Week Evening to Shop
Once you’ve finished your list and determined your stores, figure out which mall has most of those stores (unless you’re lucky enough to have one mall with all the stores.) I find that a Wednesday evening in early December is an awesome time to shop. I can get in and out quickly with minimal crowds. I hit the mall closest to my office, then by the time I’m done the commuter traffic is gone so I can zip home.

If You Must Shop a Weekend Evening, Make it a Date Night
Take your spouse with you for dinner and shopping. If you have time, see a movie. Yes, the stores might be more crowded, but they’ll be open later. Just make sure you make a reservation or get to the mall early to snap up an early seating time. Two years ago my husband and I did this. We arrived at the mall at 6:30 and got a 7:30 seating at the Cheesecake Factory – the most in-demand restaurant in the shopping center. By the time we finished eating at 8:30, they were handing out 11PM seating times. We pre-shopped, enjoyed a lovely dinner, and then went back to the stores to buy our final choices. We ended up missing the movie because we didn’t want to wait for an 11PM show, but we still had fun.

And finally, when in doubt, give truffles. It’s the cheap, no-fail gift, and completely in keeping with the season: I love you, here’s something delicious and fattening.

We’re T -3 to Thanksgiving, so it’s time to kick it into high-gear. Since I have experience both hosting and traveling, I’ve got Thanksgiving countdowns for both options.

Thanksgiving Travelers’ Schedule
If you have to travel, I feel your pain. I flew home for several years, until it became too expensive and started to take nearly as long as the drive. I switched to driving 11 years ago. It’s awful, but better than the airport. (Shudder.) Here are my tips for a reduced-stress trip.

Make your packing list. If you have kids, make their lists, too.
Make sure everything on the packing list is clean. If not, do laundry.
Check the weather for both your departure and return days. Plan alternate routes if you’re driving and there may be snow along your preferred route.
If you’re flying, make a parking reservation if you haven’t already.
Refer to my list of Thanksgiving travel tips to make sure everything is covered.

Get out the suitcases.
Buy snacks and water.
Double-check your backroads.
Pack car games or something for the airport/plane.
Stop the newspaper/mail (if you’ll be gone long enough).
If you have pets, confirm with their caretaker and exchange keys.
If you’re flying, check in online.

Pack final toiletries, pajamas, etc.
Pack the car.
Put everyone in the car.
Leave as early as possible.

Make yourself useful to the host or get out of the way.
Eat, eat, eat, eat!

Thanksgiving Hosts’ Schedule
If you’re hosting, then your work is just beginning. Hopefully you’ve shopped for most of the food, but I’ve included a shopping trip in case you’re using a fresh turkey that will need to be picked up.

Make bread if using for stuffing so it will have time to get a bit stale.
Set bread out to dry.
Make up guest rooms.
Put fresh towels in guest baths.
Make final shopping list.
Put turkey in fridge to defrost if using frozen and not brining. If you are brining it, it should already be defrosting.
Make Thursday cooking schedule, counting backwards from the time you want to eat.

Chill the wine.
Make rolls.
Mix dip or other appetizers.
Make pie crust.
Pick up turkey.
Begin brining turkey if brining it.
Make cranberry sauce it not using canned.

Make pie.
Cook appetizers.
Put brined turkey in fridge to rest so skin is nice and crispy.
Wash china/crystal.
Polish silver.
Iron linens.
Set table.
Make stuffing.

Wipe down bathrooms.
Stuff turkey.
Put turkey in oven immediately.
Make side dishes.
Make salad.
Warm and plate appetizers.
Remove turkey, let rest.
Heat rolls.
Make gravy.
Serve cranberry sauce.
Eat, eat, eat, eat.

Enjoy leftovers.

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