Some people think I’m weird, but I love holiday shopping. Finding just the right gifts for people I care about is very satisfying, particularly when I can come in under budget when doing it. I figure it’s a guilt-free way to fulfill my innate urge to shop.

Because I have a large extended family and circle of friends at home and abroad whom I like to remember with a little something at Christmas, I have a very long shopping list. So how do I cross off all the names on my list while keeping my sanity and my credit rating?

Through many years of trial and error, I’ve come up with some strategies that help make my shopping virtually stress-free:

1. Make a list

This is vital. Early in October, I pull up last year’s list, which is a table with columns for names, spending limits, ideas, what I actually bought and how much I spent. I add and (very rarely, I admit) delete names as required, and revisit the budget from last year. I finally got tired of calling people to ask how old their kids were (I can barely keep track of my own kids’ ages), so I got into the habit of putting the ages of all kids in brackets after their names, then just adding a year each time I create a new list. I print off the list, because it’s so satisfying to physically check off names, and carry it around with me constantly. That way, I can keep it up to date and avoid buying for the same person twice or missing someone else entirely. It also helps me to stick to my budget.

2. Start early

Because I send gifts to friends and family in the U.K., I aim to get all their gifts bought, wrapped and mailed by late October, to take advantage of surface mailing rates. I still wince at sometimes spending more on postage than the gift itself, but it beats the pain of laying out megabucks to airmail a last-minute item. Find out when the shipping deadlines are for your gift destinations, and make a note on your calendar a month ahead. And even if you don’t have gifts to mail, it feels good to put a significant dent in your shopping by Halloween, and be pretty well finished by the end of November. Some years, I even pick up a few gifts in the late spring or summer at events like craft sales. I may not yet know who I will give them to, but I put them away where I know I’ll find them, and assign them to people on my list before I do any more shopping. There will always be bits and pieces to pick up in December, but I sleep better knowing I won’t have to fight the last-minute crowds at the mall.

3. Shop virtually

Consider shopping online. Be sure to factor in shipping charges, and watch for websites that offer free shipping for orders over a certain amount. Last year, I did most of my U.K. shopping “there” —  I ordered small gift baskets from U.K. websites and arranged for them to be delivered straight to my friends and family. It ended up costing less than mailing small gifts from Canada and I was guaranteed delivery just before Christmas. Now that the online shopping universe knows I exist, I get the most interesting catalogues in the mail — it’s fun reading, even if I don’t buy anything!

4. Go big — and then go home

I block off a Saturday in mid-to-late November to hit up some warehouse sales or a major craft sale. I wear comfortable shoes and arrive right at opening time, and I don’t go home until I’ve bought at least a dozen gifts. If I find something particularly nifty and well-priced, I will buy the same item for several people on my list. (This definitely works best for recipients who don’t know one another.)

Some people swear by wrapping gifts as they buy them, but I find it less disruptive and more efficient to collect everything I need (tags, ribbon, bags, tape, tissue, tie-ons and alternative wrappings such as tea towels) once I know what I have to wrap. Then I take over the biggest table in the house (a ping-pong table is perfect) and wrap everything in one mass frenzy. I tick every gift off my list once it’s wrapped, and again once I’ve delivered it.

Other holiday shopping tips:

  • From Canadian Finance Blog: “Don’t go overboard on stocking stuffers. This is a great chance to be frugal by shopping for little gifts at the dollar store and including some candies, nuts and mandarin oranges.”
  • From The Baby Bottom Line:  “Don’t forget Christmas cards! (Or where you put the ones you bought on sale last year…)”
  • From Financial Highway: “Start your Christmas shopping in the off-season or right after the holidays have come and gone. Keep an alert eye open for bargains, sales, and discounts throughout the year and load up when you see that perfect gift at the perfect price. Not only will picking up the occasional gift during store sales cost you less, but it will also, critically, spread the costs out over a longer period of time so your budget doesn’t take a large hit all at once.”