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Pre-Holiday Guide: What To Mark On Your Financial Checklist

Susan Johnston

Halloween is still few weeks away, yet a few retailers already have Christmas and Hanukkah items on display. As much as some consumers dread the premature onslaught of Christmas carols and ads featuring sleds and snowmen, it's not too soon to start planning your holiday travel and spending. Once November rolls around, the pace of parties and seasonal activities will only accelerate, and it's all too easy to get caught up in the excitement (and expenses) of the season.

"The holidays are probably the No. 1 time of year where people go a little bit crazy and don't spend within their limits," says Derek Gabrielsen, a wealth advisor with Strategic Wealth Partners in Seven Hills, Ohio. Here's how to start planning now so you won't start the new year in the red.

1. List your expenses. Santa has his list of who's naughty or nice, and it's a good idea for you to make your own list of trips you need to book, gifts to buy and other holiday-related expenses like an outfit for the company party. These expenses are often overlooked because they come around once a year, not once a month. That's why Laura Adams, host of the Money Girl podcast, suggests listing possible expenses you'll have between now and the end of the year to avoid financial surprises.

[Read: 5 Ways to Avoid Holiday Shopping Fatigue.]

2. Set aside extra cash. Ideally, you sat aside money each month in anticipation of holiday expenses. Christmas Clubs were popular during the Great Depression and acted as special short-term savings accounts people used to set aside money throughout the year for the holidays. These days, many people don't do this. If that sounds like you, start saving what you can now. If you anticipate spending patterns similar to last year, Gabrielsen suggests using that figure as a benchmark. "Make sure it's within your budget and don't overextend yourself, especially with credit card debt if you have no plan in place to pay it off quickly," he adds.

3. Start on DIY gifts now. Do-it-yourself gifts aren't always the cheapest option because they can require huge outlays of time or expensive materials. If you're planning to go this route, give yourself plenty of time to finish them, Adams says. Otherwise, you may find yourself pulling an all-nighter to finish knitting that baby blanket or making a last-minute gift run and blowing your budget when it's not ready in time.

4. Talk to friends and family about gifts. Just because you've gone all out on gifts in previous years doesn't mean you have to continue the pattern this year. If you'd like to scale back because you're on a tighter budget or simply feel like you've unwrapped all the fruitcakes you need, speak up. Instead of buying gifts for every single family member, Adams suggests setting up a Secret Santa exchange so you each buy one gift. Also, cap the dollar amount on the present so no one feels pressure to outdo each other. "If you can get buy-in to do something that is more frugal, sometimes that can be a really nice change of pace," Adams says.

[See: 10 Ways to Avoid Airline Fees.]

5. Book your travel. Holiday travel is a huge expense for many consumers, especially those flying on popular travel days. To help rein in those costs, John DiScala, veteran traveler and founder of travel website JohnnyJet.com, suggests planning ahead and being flexible on travel dates. "You've got to use your vacation time wisely," he says, and recommends leaving the weekend or Monday before Thanksgiving and flying back the Friday after turkey day. "That Friday is the cheapest day to fly besides Thanksgiving afternoon."

The cheapest time to fly before or after Christmas is less predictable since Christmas falls on a Wednesday this year. DiScala suggests plugging a variety of dates in the ITA Software matrix airfare search to determine the cheapest dates to fly. If you're allowed to work remotely, you may be able to book your flight for the cheapest travel dates without sacrificing vacation time.

Also factor in the cost of checked luggage, especially if you're planning to bring lots of gifts with you. In some cases, it may be more cost-effective to ship gifts rather than pay for a checked bag. DiScala advises to ship gifts at least a week in advance and to choose the ground shipping option. Otherwise, it may be cheaper to pack gifts in your luggage (unwrapped, of course, in case TSA wants to check the contents).

6. Buy what you can on sale. Websites like PricePinx.com and Hukkster.com can alert you when an item you're planning to buy (say a gift) goes on sale. As items on your holiday gift list drop in price, buy them. "It's all about spending the money at the right time and thinking it through instead of waiting until the last minute and having to pay full retail price," Adams says.

7. Check your rewards points and miles. If you've accumulated airline miles or rewards points over the course of the year, consider using those to pay some of your holiday expenses for flights and presents. Some credit cards offer gift cards as rewards, which Adams says could be used as a gift or to buy items for a holiday party.

[Read: Reward Yourself By Choosing The Best Credit Card For Perks.]

If you pay off your credit card each month, then using a rewards credit card for holiday expenses may help you rack up even more rewards. But if you think you might overspend, use cash instead. "If your budget is $1,000, take out that $1,000," Gabrielsen says. "When the cash is done, the shopping is done."

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