FOR many of us, the most financially destructive time of the year is just around the corner. Our consumption-focused lifestyles combined with unrelenting retail advertising put us under pressure to buy and own as much as we can - whether money is available or not.
You need to really think out of the gift-wrapped box if you want to make it to mid-January without a severe spending hangover.
Budget: Before you do anything, create a festive season budget and work out your priority purchases. Peter Atkinson, national technical portfolio manager at the Financial Intermediaries Association of Southern Africa, says at least half of your bonus - should you be lucky enough to be getting one - should be either saved, invested or spent on big-ticket necessities such as fixing your roof, servicing your car or buying new tyres.
Consider also investing in a solar geyser to offset your power costs in future. Once this has been assigned, you need to factor in all the expenses you will incur until your next pay cheque in January. Anything left over can be spent on your holiday requirements;
Plan a gift strategy: Work out who you need to give gifts to and rank them according to the point at which their expectations and your generosity meet.
The A list might be your immediate family, the B list your extended family, friends and business partners and the C list your colleagues and acquaintances. You might need to get personalised and relatively costly gifts for the A list, but consider getting an inexpensive gender generic item - a knife sharpener or a panettone cake - for all the people on your B list. The C list can generally be fobbed off with a card or similar token;
Get creative: Feed the trend away from conspicuous consumerism towards muted sustainability. Often the most cherished gifts are those that are inexpensively made rather than those bought at a premium. Get a few pots, some potting soil and some basil or thyme seeds and hand out windowsill plants. You could bake biscuits, make an iPod playlist or give someone the gift of an audiobook saved to one of the memory sticks you have gathering dust in your drawer.
But time is money and you need to assess the economic cost of making 10 bottles of jam over completing three profitable tasks. However, if you have the time, there are several interesting and inexpensive things you can give away. Try Google for ideas;
Go online: Shopping online, despite the odd fraud scare, has never been easier and the range of available goods has never been so vast. Because there is no brick and mortar store with fixed overhead costs, prices are often lower than you'll find anywhere else. You also get the chance to make cost comparisons, rate products and read customer reviews before you go to the virtual check-out. Best of all, you avoid shopping in a mall where you are almost guaranteed to make meaningless spontaneous purchases you will later regret;
Try to get your shopping for non-perishable things out of the way as soon as you can. Things such as crackers, Christmas lights and other decorations are available now at prices you probably won't see again until January. The next couple of weeks are also the last that you'll be able to shop and browse with any sense of calm.
By mid-December, bonuses will have been paid and the shopping frenzy will have kicked into high gear, rendering futile any rational decision-making about appropriate purchases;
Leave the children behind when you need to do any serious shopping. You will end up buying more cheap plastic toys than you intended and you will be distracted when you try to buy anything else. Shopping carefully and well is a skill that requires maximum concentration, something you won't be able to do with your children tearing the place apart and needing the loo;
Get together the people you will be sharing the season with and plan your activities. Are you doing Christmas Eve, Christmas lunch or both?
Then designate tasks and payment responsibilities. Decide who is catering for what, who will buy the drinks, who will decorate the tree or the table or whatever your festive season requirements are. You could also work out what your costs were last year and - assuming you will be doing similar things - divide the overall cost between the adults; and
During holidays, the time we usually spend in the office is spent somewhere else. Acsis financial planner Henry van Deventer says the problem is that "somewhere else", even if you are staying at home, tends to cost money because your routine is altered and the gaps in your day get spent treating yourself and your loved ones. This is especially true if you have children.
Instead of going to malls and out to restaurants for expensive dinners and lunches, consider picnics and braais at home, the beach, the park or with friends.
Party at people's homes rather than clubs and pubs. Divide your holiday spending money by the number of days between pay cheques and make this your daily budget. When you do go out, get tough about sticking to your limit.
Finally, remember to slow down. One of the best ways to keep yourself from being deep in debt by mid-January is to simply relax. Give yourself permission to say no to too many engagements, and take the time to rejuvenate.
Read a book, go for walks and play games with the children.
*This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers