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Holiday help: Stay fun, festive and sane!

Abbi Perets lives in Houston, TX, with her husband and five children.






festive fun

The cooler days and longer nights can mean only one thing: the holiday season is quickly approaching. It seems like school just started last week, but already the Jack-o-lanterns have given way to boughs of holly, and it's time to get your holiday groove on.

Every year, you have two choices: run around like a crazy person and skid into the holidays in full-on meltdown mode -- or spend a little time planning and enjoy yourself during the season of giving. If the first way sounds like fun, you're on your own. But we can help you get to the finish line with energy -- and goodwill -- to spare. Read on for our tips for the happiest holidays ever.

Start planning now.

Today, when the holidays are still a couple of calendar pages away, start your planning. Grab a leftover composition book from your kids' school supplies, label it "Holiday Planning," and open it up. Now, start writing. Write down everything you can think of that you want or need to do for the holidays.

Drawing a blank? Think travel plans, gift lists, menus, and invitations, for starters. Sit down with a cup of hot chocolate, and take 20 minutes to make your list. When it's finished, set it aside for a day or two, then come back and make any necessary changes. For example, is it really necessary to handwrite 347 holiday cards? Maybe an email update would serve the same purpose. On the other hand, did you completely overlook teacher gifts? Jot it down now so you're not scrambling at the last minute.

Go over the list with your spouse -- maybe he can help you cross off a few items that really don't matter. You can also divide and conquer by assigning him some of the tasks. Get your kids in on the act, too, with specific assignments they can complete. Write up the master list, complete with assigned deadlines, and review it once a week to ensure everyone is on track.

Set a budget -- and stick to it.

Decide how much you can reasonably afford to spend on the holidays. That number should include everything -- gifts, travel, special food and decorations, and anything else that's a true holiday expense. Write that number down. If you can, go ahead and withdraw that amount in cash from your account, and keep it in a special envelope you can go to when you need to make a purchase. Otherwise, keep careful written records and make that part of your weekly review.

Remember that gifts don't have to be pricey. There is no reason to go into debt to give people things they won't love, use, or cherish. If you have a large family, consider a Secret Santa exchange where each person only buys one gift. Consider getting only one family gift for your immediate household, and give the kids dollar store treats to unwrap on the big day.

Schedule dedicated holiday work time.

Find two or three days you can take off from work or other obligations between now and when you want to complete your holiday preparation. Schedule them on your calendar and plan your activities. For example, if you set a baking day, figure out exactly what you're making and have everything you need on hand. For shopping day, get your list organized and ready to go.

Plan to enjoy yourself.

Decide for yourself what's most important to you for this holiday season. Write that in your planner, and repeat it to yourself every time you sense you're about to veer away from your chosen path. If it's not going to get you to your preferred destination, why are you going there?

With a little prep work, you can cruise through even the busiest holiday season with a smile on your face and joy in your heart.

FOR MORE HOLIDAY TIPS and ideas:

Learn how to take great holiday photos

5 Ways to survive the holidays with your kids

7 shopping tips to reduce holiday stress

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