It's not too early to start thinking about a holiday spending strategy, not only to hold down debt but also to reduce the stress that comes with putting things off to the last minute.
Many families may have less to spend for Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa this year because of the higher cost of gasoline and home heating fuel. And some may be less comfortable spending as usual when they know so many people on the Gulf Coast are struggling to put their lives back together after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"With time on our side — a couple of months in advance of the holidays — we have the opportunity to step back and ask, 'What's a reasonable amount of money I can spend on holiday festivities, gifts and donations?'" said Sheryl Garrett, head of a fee-only financial planning service based in Shawnee Mission, Kan.
Families can talk about what they really want, which may have less to do with buying things and more to do with spending time with people who matter or giving to those less fortunate, she added.
"Maybe it's a reaction to going overboard in the 1980s and 1990s, but I sense a lot of people are moving away from materialistic things (and) toward more thoughtful and meaningful holidays," Garrett said.
In fact, there are many tactics families can adopt for the holidays that don't bust their budgets for the rest of the year.
Rob Bennett of Purcellville, Va., who publishes the Financial Freedom blog, believes "holiday spending has spun out of control" and that families need to re-evaluate their priorities.
Bennett and his wife Mary, who goes by the name Boo, have cut back significantly on holiday spending. And they budget for it, setting aside some money every month to cover Christmas gifts for their two sons, a tree, entertaining and other holiday expenses.
Bennett says he tries to be creative about gifts.
"I'll go to a used bookstore and find just the right book for Boo, maybe something out of print," he said. "It may cost just $5, but I know it's something she wants."
And he thinks couples can benefit by agreeing not to exchange gifts and, instead, schedule something that's fun to do together.
Bennett also argues that children would be better off getting less, including his own boys, who are 5 and 3.
"Like most kids they already have too many things," he said. "It's actually a burden on the kids."
Lisbeth Wiley Chapman, who operates the Ink & Air public relations consulting firm in Wellfleet, Mass., recalled a difficult stretch she went through 20 years ago when there was barely enough money to pay the rent, much less cover holiday gifts.
Thrift shops run by churches and community groups provided a wealth of items at low cost, Chapman said.
"I remember finding a beautiful glass bird for my mother, who collects birds," she said. "It was cheap, but she loved it."
Holiday gifts for her sons were necessities like socks and towels and school supplies.
"I wrapped every single thing I put in their stockings — boxes of raisins, pencils, erasers," Chapman said. "I still wrap everything in the stockings — it's become a family tradition."
Chapman also buys each of her two sons an ornament every year so that when they leave home, they have a collection to decorate their own trees.
Linda Arroz, who was a professional shopper before she and a partner opened the Makeover Media business consulting firm in Los Angeles, suggests families make a list of the people they want to buys gifts for and set firm price limits.
"A lot of people just blunder out," she said. "They get caught up in the music, the decorations and they whip out that credit card and before they know it they've spent $1,000."
She likes what she calls "gifts that last all year," like magazine subscriptions for hobbyists, whether they're into knitting or fly fishing, and annual memberships to museums.
And she's a fan of gift certificates.
"You don't have to worry about choosing between those cashmere gloves or the acrylic gloves," she said. "Give them a certificate and let them be creative with it."
Arroz also thinks the holidays are a good backdrop for families to decide together on charitable contributions.
Many, this year, may want to contribute to hurricane survivors, she said. "There are also a lot of local charities that may not be doing very well this year that would really appreciate donations, especially the arts," she said.