By Kate Horrell

Here are the 5 money rules for milfams during the holidays

The very first Christmas that we lived away from my family, I was determined to make it seem like I was back home.  I spent weeks searching for the perfect gifts for each member of my family, shopping carefully so that I would not blow our newlywed budget.  Once the shopping was done, I wrapped each present beautifully, packed it up, and took it to the post office with plenty of time before the holidays.

The postal clerk typed in all the info and asked me how I wanted to send the box.  Even the cheapest, slowest option cost more than the gifts themselves. Years later, my family shared that the gourmet coffee syrups I’d sent for my father had broken in shipping and the entire box arrived soggy and ruined.

Sometimes holiday spending goes that way–you spend more than you planned, and you still don’t come out with the “perfect” result.  After many years, I’ve finally figured out how to survive the holidays, enjoy the things that are most important to me, and keep our budget in line at the same time.  It isn’t easy, but it works.

1. Face your finances

Budget from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Tax Credits, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

For me, the hardest part is truly considering every single thing that costs extra money during the holiday season. I save my list from year-to-year, and I look at our calendar from mid-November through the beginning of January to see where these extra expenses will show up.  Your list may look very similar or entirely different.  All that matters is that you’re facing these costs before you spend the money.

Things on my list include (or have included in the past):

  • Special ingredients for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners
  • Wine and other alcohol for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners
  • Christmas cards and postage
  • Holiday photos
  • Invitations to our party
  • Food for our party
  • Beverages for our party
  • Extra electricity for all those lights
  • Babysitting for work party and other events
  • Dry cleaning for special event clothes
  • Hostess gifts
  • Baking ingredients
  • Tips for service providers
  • Gift wrap, tape, ribbons, etc.
  • Secret Santa gifts
  • Teacher gifts 
  • Donations for various Angel Trees, food drives, etc.
  • New clothes for work party and other events
  • Tickets for the command Christmas party
  • Nutcracker tickets for our family
  • Boarding pets or pet-sitting when we travel
  • Gasoline for trip to see parents
  • Hotel room for the travel to see family
  • Meals eaten on the road while we travel

Put a rough cost down next to each item and then prepare to be shocked. We easily spend an extra $2,000 each holiday season, without even counting the actual gifts for everyone in our families.

2. Prioritize

Fast Food from Flickr via Wylio
© 2011 SteFou!, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Once you’ve made a list of every single expense that you can imagine, start thinking about which items you can cut altogether and which items you can cut back without feeling deprived.  On the other side, identify which items are non-negotiable.

I can gladly give up new clothes for events and invitations to our party can be done via email, Facebook, or Evite. I can cut back on wrapping supplies and hostess gifts by shopping sales throughout the year.  Nutcracker tickets at our local ballet school cost a fraction of the professional performance, the show is closer to home, and we enjoy it just as much.

Items that I will not cut include the entire cost of trips to see our families.  I might use coupons for eating out, but if we can find a way to see our family, we will do it.  We’ve missed more than enough holidays and special occasions due to the Navy’s schedule, and it is important to me that we visit when we can.

Your wants and needs will probably be different from mine and that’s how it should be.  We all have different priorities, and our spending should be different.

3. Consider special purchases in context

Ballet from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Rodrigo Denúbila, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

If you’re working around a special circumstance, such as a deployment or a PCS, the urge to splurge can be hard to resist.  And there’s nothing wrong with splurging, as long as you consider the big picture when you decide how to spend.  Our last Christmas in Europe, we went to Barcelona for the week.  We paid a premium to see a Russian Ballet in the historic Gran Teatre del Liceu, but we had the money set aside in our travel budget. 

4. Evaluate your gift giving

Christmas Present from Flickr via Wylio
© 2015 Craig D, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Many of us give a lot of gifts during the holiday season.  Between spouses and kids and parents and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and teachers and best friends and favorite hair dressers, things can get out of control. Look critically at your gift-giving list, and see if there is a way to lessen the load on everyone.  One side of my family has decided that gifts are only for kids and the other side swaps names so that you only buy for one person instead of 12.  Consider less expensive (but more thoughtful gifts) for teachers, and brainstorm ways to economize.  Would your fellow parents chip in to get one more substantial present instead of 27 apple-shaped Christmas ornaments?

5. Don’t blow your budget at the end

My major holiday shopping downfall is that I get stressed out as the dinner or party or gift-giving event nears.  I’ll have a carefully planned shopping list and then decide that I need to get an extra bottle of nice wine for dinner or that the gift I bought actually wants a little bonus gift to go with it.  During this busy time of the year, an extra $10 or $20 can add up really quickly.

November and December are two months that challenge even the strongest family budgets.  A little planning ahead, prioritizing, and focusing on the things that are truly important will help make a memorable holiday season without ruining your finances along the way.
Kate Horrell is a financial coach who specializes in helping military families make the most of their pay and benefits.  She’s also been married to a sailor for a couple of decades, and has moved around the world with their four girls.  You can find her at, or on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest .