This post is from GRS staff writer April Dykman.

Last Christmas, I had some great gift ideas: They were heartfelt, they were personalized — and they couldn’t just be bought at a store. We’re talking custom-made ornaments, family calendars, and photo books filled with precious memories made that year.

Unfortunately, Christmas snuck up on me, and I only pulled together two of the gifts in time for the holiday. This irked me because, one, they were great ideas. Two, I’m a planner. Planning is my thing, and it’s not normal for me to fail to plan. Three, I had to come up with ideas at the last minute that were within budget.

The benefits of planning (or, why bother?!)
I won’t repeat Christmas 2009. Nope, this year, I’m getting organized. I realize that some people think this sort of planning is a drag, but there are some real benefits to taking 30 minutes or so to organize your gift giving, such as:

  1. No shockingly high credit card bills or scarily low checking account balances. I used to put away a set amount of money each month for gifts. As I’ve gotten better with managing my money, that tactic fell by the wayside, but it’s still a valuable idea, especially if there are times of the year you know you’ll spend more. For example, in my family, everyone seems to be born in the month of April. It’s good to keep in mind that there will be more gifts given in that month, whether I choose to set aside money for it or not.
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  3. The gifts are likely to be more personal. I dislike the idea of gift giving just to satisfy an obligation. I want to give a gift that makes someone feel like I’ve given it, and them, some real thought. But it’s hard to think of a heartfelt gift when you’re wandering the malls at the eleventh hour, looking for something, anything, so that you don’t show up to the bridal shower empty-handed.
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  5. You can get creative. Remember my wonderful Christmas gift ideas? If I had started earlier, I could have given those gifts, which were not only more personal, but also were fairly inexpensive. It’s not possible to create a scrapbook of a family reunion as a Christmas gift if it’s already December 20.

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to make a nice, personalized gift. Search online for easy ideas, like simple ornaments, frames, and food gifts.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, check out the products you can make with photos on sites like Snapfish, such as scrapbooks, calendars, cards, collages, canvases, jewelry, planners, address books, and more. Etsy is another good source for unique items, and you can leave the crafty part to someone else.

A (less than) 37-minute investment
I timed myself as I created my gift plan so that I could let you know that it only took 37 minutes to do this. Then I created a spreadsheet [9kb XLS] (oh, how I love spreadsheets), so that it would take you even less time. Edit it and make it your own.

First, you’ll list every holiday, event, or occasion for which you give gifts. List the recipients in the next column (you may need to add lines for an occasion with more than one recipient). In the third column, brainstorm a few gift ideas. If you aren’t sure, write in some of their interests that might spark ideas later.

 

Next you’ll add in the date of the event, and if it’s a gift that needs to be started early (think reservations, tickets, special orders, handmade gifts, etc.), fill in a start date. If I want to work on those photo books, I need to include a start date two months out from Christmas.

Tip: Put these start dates on a calendar. I like Google Calendar because it sends an e-mail reminder.

 

Finally, if you know the cost or if you have a set budget, include that on the planning sheet. After I’m done with this, I like to sort the list by event date and print it out.

Keep your list in your planner or somewhere accessible. It’s a working list, so it needs to be close at hand so that you can write down good ideas as they come to you or cross off gifts you’ve already purchased or made.

Tip: While you’re out and about with your list, don’t forget to pick up wrapping paper, cards, gift bags, and bows when they are on sale. Another great place to stock up on gift wrap items is at a dollar store. My mom finds beautiful gift bags at the dollar store, and I’ve learned to follow her lead.

 

Do you plan out gifts in advance, or do you prefer to wing it? Leave your tips on planning and budgeting for gifts below!

J.D.’s note: My wife has a gift spreadsheet, too, and she updates it throughout the year. My own methods are, well, less planned. I’m the proverbial last-minute shopper. Also, here’s my big list of homemade Christmas gifts, many of which are appropriate for other times of the year, too.

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