Fall has officially arrived, and with it the unofficial start of the holiday season. While it may seem far away, you should start planning ahead now to alleviate some of the stress that accompanies this exciting and busy time of the year.

We are all more aware of every dollar we spend these days, so make a goal for this holiday season to still have money in your savings even after the decorations are put away and the first bells of 2011 ring.

Here are some tips to keep the “Ghosts of Holidays Past” from haunting you in the form of a credit card payments next year:

Develop a budget and stick to it: Write a list of everyone on your gift list and determine how much you want to spend on each person.  You should also include costs for cards, postage, gift-wrapping, holiday meals out, parties, travel, and any other miscellaneous items.  Bring your list when you hit the stores, as it is easy to shop impulsively during this time of year.

Shorten your gift list: Is it really necessary to buy everyone on your list a present?  Consider sending a thoughtful holiday card or e-mail, or even writing a family newsletter to update everyone about the past year.

Get creative with your gift giving: Handmade gifts and personalized coupons can be the most thoughtful gifts.  Think about your own talents as well as what the person may need.  For example: knit a blanket or sweater; bake some cookies; create a photo album of your favorite pictures (decorate the cover of the album with a colorful title); make a music tape with their favorite tunes; or give them a coupon for a special dinner at your house, baby-sitting time, or even a house cleaning – the list is endless.

Secret Santa/White Elephant: If you have a big family or have lots of friends, suggest this fun and less expensive gift-giving ideas so that each person has to buy only one gift. Not only is it cost effective, but always brings more creativity and family involvement.

Shop early and compare prices: There are great bargains and sales to be found—even during this time of year.  For future reference, when you see a great gift for a family or friend during the year – buy it!  Not only do stores offer special promotions and discount prices throughout the year, but this will also save you time during the holidays and help you spread your spending throughout the year.  Just don’t forget to put your gifts in a safe place so you know where to find them when it’s time to give them away!

Shop online or by catalogue: It’s fast, it’s easy, and you can comparison shop!  And since you’ll probably be ordering gifts from the comforts of your home, the temptation to eat out or to make unplanned purchases will be greatly reduced.
Save money: Continue adding to your holiday fund each week.  If your budget is tight, find ways to cut back on your daily spending (e.g., no morning latte, bring a lunch to work, give up your weekly movie, etc.), and put that extra cash toward gifts.

Pay off your credit card: If you are planning to shop with a credit card, make sure you have enough in your bank account to pay off the amount at the end of the month.  Also, consider using cards that offer extra incentives such as frequent flier miles.

Donate more than cash: Contact your favorite local charity and see if they take donations in other forms than just cash (e.g., canned goods, clothing, furniture, books, etc.).