Christmas is less than two weeks away and I bet most of you still haven't made your holiday budgets. If you're anything like me, it's even safer bet that you also haven't thrown out your leftover Halloween candy corn, or mailed your Arbor Day thank-you notes.

Before you start your gift list, stop and realize that it isn't the gifts that keep on giving you credit card bills all year long. In fact, consumers spend nearly as much on the holiday tinsel, trimming and trinkets as they do on gifts.

Consider how most of us budget for the holidays. First you look at how much you have diligently saved in the holiday savings fund you set up in a nifty online money market account currently paying an interest rate of 0-point-squat percent. Then you realize that you never did that, because nobody in the real world has ever done that, no matter how often they are sternly advised to do so by smarty-pants personal finance writers.

Do you hear what I hear?

This is because Americans treat saving for their financial goals in exactly the same way we treat our smoke-detector batteries: knowing we are supposed to change them when we move the clocks ahead (or is it behind?) for Daylight Savings Time each spring, but doing nothing until the brain-piercing beep, beep, beep of the dead battery alarm jolts us out of bed at night. This is followed by congratulating ourselves on having the foresight to avoid getting burned alive in the meantime.

Most of us budget for the holidays in much the same way. Your spouse sees one of those Lexus ads featuring a $60,000 car with a gigantic red bow on top and says, "You know, we could use a new car." You realize that you will be lucky to get her a new Swiffer, so you scrounge through the couch cushions, submit your overdue expense reports and lie to yourself about how much you can pay Visa between January and when you'll have to book the summer vacation. That's your Christmas budget, which you immediately ignore by spending at least $300 more on gifts.

Unfortunately, you don't buy a new Swiffer and so, right before company shows up Christmas Eve, you are paying top dollar to a street-corner cleaning supplies dealer, who takes you for even more when he asks, "You gonna need some pads wit dat?" You also forget that the bargain-priced strings of Christmas lights you bought on sale last Dec. 26 will burn out the minute they are nailed to the roof (thanks, G.E.!), so you pay full price for last-minute replacements.

Beating the wrap

In addition, you forgot to budget for a tree, and you'll need to add tips for the mailman and newspaper carrier, greeting cards and postage, a couple of poinsettias for the front hall, and the blinking holiday antlers for Fido and Boots.

Plus, gifts don't stop at your immediate family: there's the kids' teachers, then Tracie from Accounts Payable shows up with homemade jam for everyone at the office and for which you suddenly must reciprocate. Ditto for your friends who, if they really were your friends, wouldn't force you to be as thoughtful, generous and considerate as they are, and would instead give you an unsigned $25 gift card you could regift to them in an emergency.

Add it all up, and you can see where your holiday spending goes off the rails and down the drain. So plan accordingly as you make your last-minute dash to the malls and your holiday budget won't get stretched past the breaking point. You won't save enough for a new luxury automobile, but at least you can afford a big red bow for that Swiffer.

Brian O'Connor is author of the award-winning book, "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese." 222-2145Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

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