I've broken out my Excel spreadsheet and I'm starting to seriously shop for Christmas this year. My goal is to be finished by December 1, so I can enjoy Advent and not think about gifts at all.
I keep a spreadsheet for each Christmas that helps me stay organized and on budget. The spreadsheet has multiple pages -- Christmas card addresses, immediate family gifts, extended family and friends gifts, holiday extras (includes outings and extra decorations purchased), gifts received, cookie plan, holiday meal plan.
The Christmas card page is pretty self-explanatory. I keep an address list for everyone that we send a card to each year. I try to update it with new addresses throughout the year, but I'm not always successful.
The gift pages list the person (or family) name, the gift, whether or not it's been purchased, how much it cost, whether it's wrapped. If items need to be shipped, I also include the shipped date, and if it was shipped directly from a company.
The holiday extras page includes the cost of outings like Zoo Lights or a special holiday concert. It also includes any new decorations we may purchase. We really like to decorate outdoors, so I try to have a little in the budget for a new outdoor decoration. I also include the cost of cards and stamps on this page.
The gifts received page makes sure that we write out thank you notes promptly, and that we remember what to thank people for! I try to have thank you notes written by the middle of January at the very latest. The boys write their own (to their ability.) Some years I'll take photos of the kids with their gifts and have them printed at Shutterfly with a "thank you" border.
The cookie plan page allows me to plan out what cookies and other baked goods I want to make for the season. I include dates for those items that can be made and frozen ahead of time, and also plan for items we may give away. My sister usually helps with the holiday baking, so we work together to find weekends that are convenient for us both.
On the meal plan page, I plan meals for any special days -- like St. Nick's Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas, New Years Eve and New Years and the Epiphany. This menu plan allows me to watch for sales at the grocery store in the months/weeks leading up to Christmas so I can stretch our money as much as possible.
At the end of the season, I zero out all the individual items and save the spreadsheet with the next year's date. That way, I can update addresses if necessary, or keep track of gifts purchased. Amazon has started running some great sales in their Toy Outlet which made me think of this today. I picked up some cars for the boys and a musical toy for L for just over $10 (all items, shipped!)
I know some people like to shop at the last minute, but with an ever-growing family, I like to enjoy the peace of the season as much as possible. It also helps us out budget-wise by spreading the costs over a few months.
Do you plan for the holidays early, or do you like to do it all in December?