Costly gifts can add unwelcomed stress to the holidays but following some simple tips and tricks can help one focus on family, not finances, this Christmas, according to an expert.

Laura Hendrix, associate professor of family and consumer science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, has some advice for families Christmas shopping on a budget.

Be ahead of the game — Procrastinating gift shopping often leads to buying over priced items. Knowing what to buy ahead of time means a chance to wait for sales to hit.

“For several years, I purchased gifts for about 20 people,” Hendrix said. “I tried to have gift ideas in mind and kept an eye out for bargains all year long.”

Stocking up on some versatile gifts can also be a helpful way to save money as well as time.

“My best strategy has been to buy several of the same items when I found an amazing sale price – a trendy accessory, cashmere gloves, a fun kitchen gadget, thick wool socks,” Hendrix said. “I often found items 50-75 percent off.”

“Buying several items at once saved time, too,” Hendrix said. “Part of the challenge with a long list may be the time needed to shop for gifts. I was a working mom and holiday season was often packed with school programs and holiday events in addition to our regularly busy schedule. Time savers can be just as important as money savers.”

Be wary of overspending — Spending beyond one’s means is a common theme during the holidays, but building and following a plan can help keep people in check when shopping. Plan ahead for next year by setting money aside every month. Consider starting a holiday savings account.

“The best way to maintain control of finances is to have a spending plan. Know monthly income and expenses and plan accordingly,” she said. “Estimate expenses and set aside a specified amount every month.”

Remember that Christmas comes once a year, but one’s income may stay the same year-round.

“In financial planning, we talk about fixed, variable and periodic expenses,” Hendrix said. “Holidays are a periodic expense – they don’t happen every month.”

“Make a list, set a spending limit, comparison shop for big ticket items and avoid window shopping and impulse buys,” she said. “If you are concerned about overspending, consider carrying cash – it’s easier to overspend with plastic.”

Don’t forget thing important things — “Oftentimes our best holiday memories are not about the gits,” Hendrix said. “Make a special effort to build traditions and rituals. Decorate the tree together, watch your favorite holiday movies together, go to community events or make and decorate cookies.”

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— Sarah Cato is with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.