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A Happy Holiday Budget (with free holiday budget planner!)

Prevent the Holiday Spending Hangover

I love Christmas. The tree, decorations, stockings, presents, carols, turkey, and cranberry sauce—the whole holiday season, really. I could go on and on. I love planning it, I love doing it, I love it all. But I haven’t always been the best about sticking to a holiday budget.

While I loved Christmas, the credit card companies loved me. I would charge my way through the season and live with the debt afterwards. My holiday spending would then go on to impact every part of my life for the next 12 months.

So when we started using YNAB as a budgeting app, I wanted to stop this annual holiday shopping debt once and for all.

Building a Better Holiday Budget

Here’s how I did it.

Year 1: No Debt, But Still Limping

When I set up my YNAB budget, I made sure there was a Christmas category right away. Each month we would put a manageable amount of money toward our holiday expenses. I was following Rule 2: Embrace Your True Expenses, and Christmas fit the bill perfectly as a non-monthly expense.

I was banking on Rule Two to rescue us from Christmas debt.

That year, our Christmas spending was way more under control, but we completely underestimated what Christmas actually cost us. There was a lot of moving money around between categories to cover Christmas expenses.

The good news: When the new year rolled around, there was no debt waiting for us. Hurrah! Progress.

The bad news: We were still limping along months after Christmas was over because we had moved money out of other non-monthly spending categories like Medical Expenses, Auto Maintenance, or Clothing.

We could do better: Time to drill down into more detail.

Year 2: Turbo Christmas Category

The next year, I created a Turbo Christmas category group. There was a category to help us save money for every person we bought holiday gifts for (including each other), feeding a crowd of family members, holiday decorations, wrapping paper, fun activities, and even a category for shipping costs to mail packages to loved ones who weren’t with us in person.

Here’s what it looked like:

A screenshot of a holiday budget with specific budget categories for every expense.
Creating detailed categories for our holiday budget helped us be more realistic about holiday spending.

It takes up quite a bit of real estate, so I keep it closed and at the bottom of my budget for most of the year.

When we first started, it was a stretch to get the categories funded in time for Christmas because we started midyear, but every little bit of holiday savings helped.

The good news: Again, no Christmas debt!

The good good news: No limping along in the months to follow. We did it! We actually stuck to a holiday budget! We finally felt in control of our holiday spending. It was the greatest gift of all, actually.

Year 3+: This Works for Us

This feeling is here to stay! When January rolls around, we start fresh on our Turbo Christmas category group. This gives us a full 12 months to save for next Christmas and drastically lowers the amount we set aside each month.

Is our Christmas budget plan perfect? No way—and we didn’t expect it to be. But we adjust as we go along. If we want more money for fun activities, where are we willing to spend less? Decorations? Groceries? Now any Christmas overspending has to be covered by another Christmas category. It doesn’t overflow into the rest of our budget.

How to Set Up a Holiday Budget:

  1. Check how much money was spent on the previous holiday season (Heyo, YNAB reports!). This gives you a pretty accurate idea of how much you’ll need in this category group.
  2. Make a plan for that money, based on your priorities for the holiday (do you need airfare this year? Do you want to host the Christmas dinner?). That will be a great conversation in and of itself—you figure out what’s actually important to you about celebrating the season.
  3. Once you know how much you want to save in every category, add a savings target to each item. This lets you forget the number you decided, as the budget will remember for you.
  4. When it’s time to budget, use Auto-Assign to assign dollars. Just select the categories you want to budget for, click or tap on Auto-Assign’s Underfunded number and you’re done.
Auto-Assign makes holiday budgeting easier in YNAB

This setup has truly brought us financial peace of mind when it comes to Christmas, and it’s created a stronger connection between our money and our priorities. Knowing our holiday spending is accounted for has brought me even more joy and peace during the holidays.

I didn’t know this was possible, but now I love Christmas even more than before.

Quick Tips about Gift Giving When You Share a Budget:

Want to keep the surprise in gift giving? Here’s our strategy:

Relationship check:
  • We decide on a spending limit that we both stick to when choosing gifts for each other.
  • We budget a little bit of extra money each month to a “His” Gift Fund category and “Hers” Gift Fund each month.
  • It doesn’t matter how many gifts we give, we know we spent the same. Or maybe I cheated on the amount just a tiny, tiny bit, because I knew how much he’d love it. 🙂
  • We often buy gifts on Amazon—which tells you nothing except the cost (it could be a lot of new socks or a new ottoman, who knows?!).
  • We sometimes use a pretend Payee name like “Gift Purchasing Place.” This keeps gift giving incognito without interfering with importing or reconciling.

Free Holiday Budget Planner Printable

Now that we’ve covered holiday budgeting tips, are you ready for some planning? Download a free holiday budget planner printable, complete with budget, gift list, to-do list, shopping list and more, and feel confident about your holiday spending habits!

A holiday planner printable preview featuring budgeting sections for decor, food, entertainment, travel, a shopping list, gift list, to-do list and more.
A sneak peak of page 1 of the free holiday budget planner printable

Download your free holiday budget planner printable. If you’re ready to love the way you spend year-round, try YNAB for free for 34 days. No credit card or commitment required.

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A Happy Holiday Budget (with free holiday budget planner!)