holiday decorations
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Get started in November:

November 20: The best way to avoid 67 trips to the post office, 7-Eleven and CVS is a Get Ready Day. Purchase postage stamps, wrapping paper, tape, ribbon; pick up prescriptions and cold remedies; stock up on pantry staples and refreshments. If you'll be mailing presents, either start collecting boxes now or split a bulk order with friends from the huge selection of decorative shipping materials found at USBox.com.

November 26: Don't go to a mall today, under any circumstances! In 2009 consumers dropped $41.2 billion over Turkey Day weekend. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, more than 2,500 people were in line when the doors opened at 4. a.m. We say stop the madness and stay home (see November 30).

Keep your cool in December:

December 1: Make a gift list. Start by asking, Who, what, where? suggests Donna Smallin, author of The One-Minute Organizer Plain and Simple. "For the where, I narrow my list to as few stores as possible," she says. "If I'm shopping online, I'll get the toys in one place, because the shipping will cost less." Also, if you charge all holiday purchases to one credit card, you'll have a convenient record of exactly how much you spent.

December 3: Finish shopping before everyone else has started with a one-night marathon of online ordering. You can find well-priced tech items at PCMall.com and MacMall.com (clearinghouses for PC and Macintosh computers, as well as other electronics). Cool and unusual gadgets popular in the Japanese market are at Dynamism.com. For children, Toys.com offers a huge selection, and KiddingAround.us sells the same kind of unusual gifts online as in its New York City store. Inventive cuff links, 18kt-gold charms, and sterling silver jewelry can be ordered from LinksOfLondon.com. Fancy foods—including smoked salmon pâté—are available at GourmetFoodMall.com at great prices.

December 5: Start brainstorming nifty (and thrifty) presents. One O contributor creates a gift of a movie and a recipe. She scouts video stores for inexpensive, previously viewed movies. At a local video store she reeled in Big Fish, Stuck on You, and Under the Tuscan Sun ($4 to $8 each). Then she handwrites recipes on cardstock to accompany each film—for example, the Naked Chef's whole salmon baked in newspaper for Big Fish—wraps the DVDs and recipes with a big bow, and delivers them to the busy parents or multiplex-phobic people in her orbit. Other ideas include offering the gift of time (to babysit, clean closets or drive a carpool), setting a mutual $5 limit on gifts or abandoning presents altogether. One O staffer and her friends take the money they'd spend on one another and dine out together to toast the season.

December 6: Consider a personal shopper. It sounds like a luxury, but this service is free at most major department stores, including Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom, as well as some malls. Fees for independent consultants can be as low as $25 an hour, higher in major cities. Deborrah Ashley, an Atlanta-based personal shopper, says she can save you time and money. "I get a better pick of inventory, whether it's an outfit or a toy that's going to be really hot this season," she says. "Plus, when people book me early, I can monitor sales." She'll work with any budget and tackle the day-after-Thanksgiving sales so you don't have to.

December 7: Shop against the crowds. The quietest days to shop during the holidays are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, says Mall of America's trend specialist Sara Rogers. Midweek visits mean you avoid Monday shoppers inspired by Sunday ads, Thursday and Friday's roving teenagers and young moms, and the usual weekend hullabaloo.

December 11: Put yourself on your gift list, and take your time picking out the one thing that's from you to you.

December 12: You thought you wouldn't bother entertaining, but now you've caught the yuletide spirit. "A potluck supper can be one of the easiest ways to throw a holiday party," says chef Debra Ponzek of Aux Délices Foods, a gourmet shop and catering company in Greenwich and Darien, Connecticut. Ger her recipe for Braised Short Ribs of Beef.

December 14: Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, offers the following advice for avoiding annoying questions. "Even polite forms of 'none of your business' are too harsh for relatives who cite their love and concern when asking, 'So when are you having kids?' or 'Should you really be eating that?'" says Martin. "The most effective way to halt them is to run crying from the room. But the consequences—being labeled sensitive and being talked about all the more in your absence—may not be worth it. A less drastic method is to be charming. Thus, follow a dismissive 'Oh, who knows?' with an earnest 'But tell me how you've been, and what you've been doing.'"

December 15: This year we resolve to tip generously, because the difference between a good tip and a great one costs little but means a lot to the recipient (as any former waitress knows). If you're deciding between money and a present, keep in mind that most people prefer the cash. Who to tip and how much? Here's the lowdown.

December 21: Today is the last day you can send a U.S. Postal Service priority-mail package and be sure it will arrive by Christmas. It's a busy week: The heaviest shipping day of this holiday season will be the 22nd, for UPS—which estimates that it will deliver 24 million packages globally on that day—so bring along something to read while you stand in those long, long lines.

December 27: Make no New Year's resolution. "People swear off things in January out of a sense of obligation or guilt," says Larry Kubiak, PhD, director of psychological services at the Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center. "But the worst thing is to make a resolution because everyone else is doing it." Kubiak is all for setting goals; he simply suggests you do it at a time when you're really ready—next month, the first day of spring, your next birthday.

Looking for more sanity-saving strategies? Martha Beck can save you untold aggravation, angst, time and money.