Plan Now for The Holidays

It's never too early to start preparing for the holidays.

"Now is the time to think about who is on your gift list this year," says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Debt Relief LLC. "Then build your budget around that list."

Without a budget, you're apt to spend more than you want to and if you use credit, you could end up paying for those gifts well into next year.

To help you spend less this year but still give quality presents, here are some tips that might give you some direction and help you save money on holiday gifts.

Buy Gifts Online

Purchasing holiday gifts through the group-buying sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial can help you stay within your allotted budget and save money, says Bruce McClary, a certified financial educator for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Seattle. The sites sometimes let you buy multiples of their deals as gifts.

"It's good to follow your favorite retailers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, too. You could land yourself some good bargains that way," McClary says. "But remember you're also putting yourself on that retailer's marketing radar."

Think twice about whom you "friend" on social media if you don't want your inbox filled with unwanted offers.

Shop Locally

Small-business owners have some ideal holiday gift items to offer -- custom, one-of-a-kind items, Gallegos says. Shop at farmers markets for handmade crafts or food products, craft fairs for unique jewelry and home decor, and small boutique shops for something your loved one will love.

Kristen Hagopian, who hosts the radio program, "The Brilliant Frugal Living Show," says you also can find treasures at your local thrift stores. Sometimes you'll run across new pieces with the tags still on them.

"Bring back sensible gifts like a gorgeous thrift-store basket filled with delicious coffees purchased at your local discount grocer, and add flavored creamers," Hagopian says.

Use your imagination to save money.

Share Your Time

"Experiences always make people happier, and they tend to remember them for the rest of their lives," Gallegos says. "A toy or a material gift might break, but memories last forever."

This holiday gift could be as simple as an outing at a park, lunch at a restaurant, sledding or tubing in the snow, or painting pottery at a do-it-yourself store. Participate with the recipient to show how much you care.

Reward parents with a "date night" so they can bond without their children over a restaurant dinner or a movie and popcorn. You could offer to baby-sit.

Make a Gesture

Although giving baked cookies or homemade candy during the holidays may be considered old-fashioned, knowing you took the time and effort to make something can mean a lot, Gallegos says.

You also can take advantage of technology by making a video of your family singing a Christmas carol or your children performing a play.

When you make a video, create a photo calendar or put together a scrapbook for friends or family, everyone benefits. Your family joins together to work on a project, and the recipient gets years of enjoyment from your gift.

"These handmade gifts, specific and unique to the recipient, are priceless," Gallegos says.

Help the Unemployed

When someone loses a job, holiday wish-list items such as an iPod or Xbox might drop off the gift list, McClary says. If you have a friend or family member who is looking for work, consider giving him or her a helping hand.

"Networking is key to successfully landing a good job," McClary says. "Giving a membership in a trade or community organization like the chamber of commerce can put the unemployed person in touch with people in a position to hire."

Providing software, computer access, printer ink and paper can help someone write and distribute a resume.

Earn or Buy Gift Cards

Julie Mayfield, who blogs as The Family CEO, recommends Swagbucks, an online customer loyalty rewards program, as a good way to accumulate points that can be turned in for gift certificates or gift cards and used for shopping to save money on holiday gifts.

"I use the site's search engine function to earn points, but Swagbucks has several other ways to cash in like playing games, taking polls, etc.," Mayfield says.

You may get eight points or 30 points for one search. It's like playing the slot machines in Las Vegas, Mayfield says.

Discounted gift cards can be picked up at sites like Cardpool.com.

"Your savings on these sites can add up to 25%," Mayfield says. "If the particular gift card you're looking for isn't currently available, you can put it on an online wish list and be notified when it arrives."

Gift cards are also available on the auction site eBay. However, check the seller's ranking to see previous customers' experiences.