Yes, it’s October, but it’s not too early to think about holiday spending.

The goal is to avoid putting yourself and your family into debt because of impulsive, over-the-top spending. Those in the military community have some benefits that can help you save money and spend wisely.

Make and plan, and stick to it. First, figure out how much you can spend. If you have saved all year in a holiday account, all the better. You’re way ahead.

Decide what and who you’ll be spending money on. It’s not just gifts. Are you planning to fly or drive home for the holidays? Will you be mailing gifts to your deployed service member? Will that service member be mailing gifts home? Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Day are all within about a month of each other. Will you be cooking special meals for your family and for friends and family on any of those holidays? Hosting guests for a few days? What about decorations?

Decide how much you’ll spend in each of these areas, and for each of the gifts, and write it down. Keep track of how much you’re spending, and stay within the budget. Could you make a special gift for someone that might mean more because of the time and thought you put into it?

Here are some military-friendly ways to manage the holiday spending, starting now.

  1. If you have some specific items in mind, start your research now for best deals and prices. Your military exchange stores and websites are good places to start:; They’re open to authorized shoppers from all branches of service. (Online stores are open to veterans, too.) Your calculations should include the fact that you don’t pay sales tax in the exchanges. If you haven’t looked at the sites lately, explore. For example, ShopMyExchange has a Marketplace that brings discounts that are exclusive to the military community from outside merchants. One of their newer specialty stores, Darling Hair USA, offers a variety of hair extensions and wigs of all colors, at a discount of 10 percent, but will be offering additional seasonal discounts that range up to 30 percent, said Jeffrey Carter, CEO of the company. He currently owns two stores in the Bahrain civilian community, and is discussing the possibility of opening a concessionaire store on a base in the U.S. He travels to countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Dubai and India to get products of good quality. The store offers a variety of prices on products made from human hair as well as synthetic.
  2. Be on the lookout for deals over the next few months. Around Veterans Day, lots of merchants offer deals to veterans and service members. Peruse the deals for gift ideas, and for discounts on some items you may have already been tracking. Some merchants offer deals all year long. And don’t forget to check out deals at the military exchanges around Veterans Day. To get an idea of some of the merchants offering discounts, check out some of last year’s Veterans Day deals: After that comes holiday shopping deals, starting around Thanksgiving and Black Friday.
  3. Don’t forget your military commissaries when you’re shopping for the holiday meals. The stores typically offer many specials on holiday-specific items that can help you squeeze more out of your budget.
  4. Rather than putting everything on a credit card in December, considering putting items on layaway now. You spread the payment over a few months, then pick up the item when it’s paid for in full. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), for example, has already started its fee-free layaway program, waiving the $3 service fee for items priced at $25 or more. That includes toys, bikes, clothing and more. It’s also a way to store things like bikes and keep them out of sight. You’ll pay a deposit of 15 percent of the purchase price; items must be picked up by Dec. 24. Watch for later details on the Navy Exchange holiday layaway program.
  5. Traveling? Compare prices at American Forces Travel with other sites. American Forces Travel is the only official Defense Department site for travel discounts on airfare, flights, hotels, car rentals, travel packages and cruises, and was launched earlier this year. Those eligible include active duty, Guard, Reserve, Coast Guard, retired military, and their eligible family members. The site is connected to the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS, and authenticates you quickly. A help desk is available 24 hours a day. Vendors must at least have a military exclusive price to be part of the website, but there are other additional properties and deals listed, too. Again, compare prices.
  6. Sending packages to your deployed service member? Use the U.S. Postal Service’s Priority Mail APO/FPO Flat Rate Box. The boxes themselves are free; you can stuff whatever you can fit into them, and they cost one flat fee to ship, regardless of weight. There’s a $1.50 discount per box for those going to APO/FPO/DPO addresses. For example, the largest box military discounted price is $18.45. The boxes come in various shapes and sizes.
  7. If you expect you’ll need some extra help from Santa in buying gifts and meals during the holidays, there are nonprofit organizations in many areas that provide gift cards, holiday meal fixings, and toys for military families. Your chaplain is a good place to start for information.
  8. For expert help in developing a budget, a way out of debt, a holiday spending plan, contact the personal financial management expert on base, generally at the family center, or visit Military OneSource, for one-on-one professional advice.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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