5 Tips for Planning Ahead for the Holiday Season


This is one of my favorite topics – planning! What I’m about to share has made a world of difference in my ability to find peace and enjoyment during such a busy season. Hear me out! It’s not about putting your holiday decorations up in September (though I fully support that). This is about making your life easier and less stressful when the holiday season comes in hot, hot, hot, as it always does.

Photo: Example of our traditional Thanksgiving weekend recipes & grocery shopping list

The key here is planning ahead, but this method gets easier year after year. I like to use Google Sheets to track lists and stay organized, but you can use whatever tool(s) you prefer. What I like most about Google Sheets is that I can access these lists on any device and I can easily share documents or add contributors. Best of all, it’s free!

1. Keep a list of gift ideas all year round

Holiday shopping will always creep up on you. The marketing and sales happen sooner and sooner every season, so just when you think you’re ahead of the game you’re actually weeks behind. On top of this, you’re blanking on all the gift ideas you made mental notes of throughout the year and the ones you do remember are getting low in stock or selling out.

I started a spreadsheet of gift ideas about 8 years ago. Whenever I was out and about with friends, came across a product ad on social media, or was visiting family and made a remark about an item that would have come in handy I noted it down in my spreadsheet. This way, when it came time to shop I had a list of ideas to start from. It also gave me a list to reference throughout the year for various sales (more on this below).

Keeping track not only makes shopping much less stressful, but I feel like the gifts are more thoughtful. I’ve been able to gift items that are more useful or meaningful to my friends and family and not just gift something “for the sake of giving a gift”. Gifting is absolutely one of my favorite things to do (next to shopping, of course) and I try my best to do it with intention and put a smile on someone’s face or make their life just a little bit easier or better in some way. It’s NOT about gifting something big or expensive, it’s truly about the thought behind it and I find so much joy in this process.

Consider including the following information in your spreadsheet:

  • Giftee (Who’s it for?)
  • Item (What is it?)
  • Cost (I track this after it’s been purchased, as it will vary depending on when you buy it)
  • Purchased? (Have you purchased this item on the list yet?)
  • Received? (If ordered, has it arrived yet?)
  • Shipped to giftee? (If received, has it been sent to this out of town recipient?)
  • Returned/exchanged? (If you don’t like it, have you returned or exchanged it yet?)
  • Notes (Did you use a gift card when you purchased it? What store was it from?)
  • Link (Where can you buy it when the time comes?)

Pro tip #1: Remember to include handmade gift ideas. It’s easy to get sucked into the marketing of the season and feel the need to buy, buy, buy, but handmade is SO special. Instead, let the sales and ads spark ideas for something you could DIY yourself!

Pro tip #2: Use your gift list as a tracking tool when your shopping comes around. Mark down if you purchased an item on the list, how much you paid for it, where you purchased it, when you purchased it, whether you’ve received it and whether or not it’s been shipped if your recipient lives where you can’t hand deliver. You can even note whether or not you plan to return an item and if you’ve done so.

Pro tip #3: Keep gift lists every year for kiddos and share them when they grow up! It’s so fun to look back on some of the things you just HAD to have when you were younger. I put an air conditioner on my list for years – ha!

2. Keep a list of seasonal sales (Prime Day, Labor Day, Black Friday, Post-Christmas, etc.)

You can level up your gift list by making note of all big sales that will allow you to snag items on your list for the best possible price. Black Friday is no longer a one-day kind of sale, nor does it always include the best deals of the year. Holiday sales start well in advance of Thanksgiving these days, so by the time you’re mentally prepared to shop you might have already missed a killer deal!

I started doing this in 2021 in preparation for my 2022 shopping. I listed all of my favorite stores, as well as stores I knew I’d want to shop at to secure particular gifts. When November 1st came around I started tracking what stores had sales, what the sales included, how long they lasted or any additional detail I thought might come in handy the following year. Of course, there is no guarantee that each sale will be the same from one year to the next, but it gives me a leg up on preparations and helps me plan where I might try purchasing certain gifts to save the most money.

Consider including the following information in your spreadsheet:

  • Store
  • Name of sale (Black Friday, Prime Day, etc.)
  • Dates of sale
  • Discount information (% off, BOGO, etc.)
  • What’s included in sale (All departments? Does it vary? Any exclusions?)
  • Cash back deals (% cash back on which day of each sale)
  • Items & links to specific products to consider during the sales

Pro tip #4: If you have a place to tuck away holiday gifts all year round, take advantage of sales before Black Friday comes around like Memorial Day, Labor Day, Prime Day, and various seasonal sales. This really helps spread out expenses and makes it easier to find gifts that might be out of season come Thanksgiving. Don’t forget about post-Christmas sales, too. It may feel too early to shop for the year ahead, but your future self will thank you!

Pro tip #5: If you leverage any cash back sites, like Rakuten, make note of cash back deals during these sales too. In 2022, Madewell had 20% cash back on Cyber Monday via Rakuten which is HUGE, so it was totally worth waiting until that day to make any purchases. New to Rakuten? Sign up with my referral link!

3. Keep a list of recurring holiday meals with a grocery shopping list

I actually learned this one from my great friend Kelly at House on Sweet Hill! Thanksgiving and Christmas often consist of traditional meals that we make every year. Instead of taking the time to pull out each cookbook or recipe card and re-make the same grocery list we made the year before, we’ve created a spreadsheet including our favorite seasonal meals with the corresponding grocery list. Now, all I have to do is pull it up, decide if we’re making any new meals or tweaking any existing meals, adjust my grocery list and run to the store.

One of my least favorite tasks is meal planning, so not having to start from scratch each year gets me along to the fun part much faster – cooking and baking!

Consider including the following information in your spreadsheet:

  • Name of each recipe
  • Link to each recipe (if available)
  • Recipe ingredients and quantities
  • Shopping list (consolidate all recipe ingredients into a single list for shopping)

4. Keep a list of your holiday decor inventory

How many times have you packed up your holiday decor for the season, stored it in the attic or garage, then purchased a duplicate the next season just in case or because you totally forgot you already had it? I certainly have! You know the saying – out of sight, out of mind. It’s hard to remember what you had on display a year ago when it’s all packed away. Make a list of everything you have in your current inventory. Be sure to include sizes, quantities, colors, and even note wear and tear so you can easily reference this list while your decor is still in storage. That way, you’ll know where you have gaps to fill and what might need a little repair or replacement the following year.

Consider including the following information in your spreadsheet:

  • Category
  • Item
  • Quantity
  • Size
  • Color
  • Material
  • Year purchased
  • Wear and tear (Did it break or does it require repair?)
  • Where/how is it stored (In case you’d like to replace storage container for the following year)
  • Display location (So you know what areas you have covered and what gaps you’d like to fill)
  • Link (in case you want to purcahse again)

Pro tip #6: Add reference photos to your spreadsheet!

5. Keep a list of items you’d like to purchase for next season

It takes time to create a collection of seasonal and holiday decor pieces you love. This is another process I actually find really enjoyable. Each year I look forward to adding a handful of things to my inventory. This has, yet again, helped me spread out expenses and save for quality pieces that will last a lifetime. Larger items like Christmas trees and garland can be pricey. A lot of times you get what you pay for. In an effort to minimize waste, I think saving for the things you know will last and you know you’ll love is worth it.

Perhaps you saw a 12’ Skeleton in someone’s yard during Halloween that you MUST have next year, or maybe you’re dying to level up your garland on the mantle. Make a list of any of these items you see during the holidays that you’d really love to purchase for an upcoming season. Add links to purchase and set reminders for when they’ll be back in stock so you can be the first one to add it to your cart when it’s on the shelf! Don’t forget to note sales at these stores, too, because you might even be able to snag it during a sale when no one else is thinking about the holidays!

Consider including the following information in your spreadsheet:

  • Category
  • Item
  • Link
  • Cost
  • Quantity
  • Size
  • Color
  • Material
  • Display location (Where will it be used? Does it replace or overlap any existing decor?)
  • Sales to leverage

Pro tip #7: Shop second hand for holiday decor all year round for major sales. Not many people are buying Christmas ornaments or ceramic Santa’s in July so Christmas decor, in particular, is often 50% off or more!

Pro tip #8: Keep an eye out for sales on holiday storage like ornament containers, Christmas tree bags, etc. These items are often on major sale in January or during the summer. Investing in great storage items on super sale has made set up and break down much easier for the holidays. No more wondering where I stuffed that Christmas tray…

So, there you have it! I’ll admit, to start each of these lists takes time. But, as you can see, once you’ve started the bulk of each list, it’s really just maintenance from there on out. I hope these tips allow you to spend more time enjoying the season and less time worrying about how to prepare for it. If you have any tips for planning ahead for the holiday season, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Happy (early) holidays!

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