Organizing Theory & Artistry

Ruly Tip: Organize Your Holiday Shopping with a Gift Spreadsheet

One of Santa's many lists this year...


Cha-ching, cha-ching

Cash is hemorrhaging

I’m near the end of my shopping

My bank balance is dropping. . .


A sad but true rhyme of the holiday season.  For the past 24 hours, I have been shopping like a woman possessed.  Since we have to ship about 90% of our gifts, we have to hit the December 15 deadline to get everything in the mail in time.

Some people have trouble shopping for such a sustained length of time and prefer to break up their shopping into smaller segments throughout the year.  While it is not necessarily my preference to cram my shopping, there are a few advantages to this method:

1)      Overall, I am probably spending less time shopping than I would otherwise.  There is no agonizing for days or weeks over the right present or the best price.

2)      The continuous charges to the credit card in such a short period of time help keep us mindful of our spending and budget.  We hope this will encourage us to spend a little less.

3)      We are buying “in the moment” so we hope our gifts will have a better chance of hitting the mark with our recipients.

One thing I have been doing as I shop (and that I encourage you to do as well) is track my expenses on a simple spreadsheet.  My version goes a bit like this:


Name Gift Cost
Dad seat covers for his car $50


I add in all expenses for the holidays, from travel costs to event tickets to charitable donations and food costs.  I keep a running total as I go and it really helps me both to stay aware of how big a hole we are digging for ourselves and also to track whether I have something for everyone on my list.  As a parent, it is also helpful to look at the list and say, “OK, we have plenty for [child], no more!”  Each year, we can go back to prior year’s lists and see what our ballpark estimate is for total holiday expenses.

Aside from the budgeting and shopping management aspect, it is also helpful to look back at past year’s lists for gift ideas.  If a gift was a particular success or a spectacular dud, I try to make a note of that. I also create a separate tab in the spreadsheet to track gifts received from others.  We use that list to make sure we write our thank you notes/emails.  Since the type of gifts you give others often says a lot about yourself, the gift received list can also be a great source of gift ideas.  Sometimes I re-use old gift ideas for new recipients.  If you are going to spend the time shopping, you might as well leverage that information the best you can.

Finally, a list like this is a great way to preserve memories.  Suze Orman has been pointing out on her show that most people can’t remember a single present they received the prior year for Christmas.  With a list like this, you at least have a point of reference.  While we don’t particularly care to remember the gifts themselves, sometimes remembering the gift triggers other memories about shopping for said item or what family memory was created because of that gift.

How much does the average person spend for December holiday festivities?  I suspect most people don’t really know.  Here are some estimates from a variety of groups, which you can see range quite a bit.

American Research Group: $646

National Retail Federation: $704.18

Gallup: $712 $1,000

PR £713 (approximately $1,100)

For your own financial situation and peace of mind, however, you can’t rely on the “average.”  You need to face up to what you are really spending, whether it is far less or far more than the above estimates.  Unless you make the effort to track it yourself (whether using a spreadsheet, a software solution like Quicken or just by hand on a sheet of paper), chances are you are probably underestimating your holiday expenses.

You want to go into 2012 confident and ready, not hiding from your credit card statement.  Face the music now.  Don’t let worrying about money ruin your holiday but instead start working out a plan to pay off your holiday expenses now.  Could you eat at home the rest of December, carpool to save on gas, or reduce some other expenses?  Could you return some presents you don’t really need, buy used instead of new or stop shopping while you are still ahead?

Are you on track with your holiday expenses?  Could you add another stanza to my holiday spending poem?  Please share in the comments.