Halloween seems to be the unofficial start of the holiday retail season. (In fact, experts say Halloween is the third-most expensive holiday, after Christmas and Valentineís Day.)

Before long, stores everywhere will be decorated in evergreen and tinsel and vying for your holiday shopping dollars.

For too many families, the holidays and overspending go hand-in-hand. A financial counselor friend once told me her clients seldom think about budgeting before the holidays arrive.

While the idea seems simple, itís the execution thatís the problem. With some planning and creativity, you still can have a joyous holiday season this year without busting your budget. Now is the time to plan ahead to fund holiday expenses without letting holiday debt dampen your spirits in the New Year.

Ideally, you have saved some money to spend during this yearís holidays. No? Donít worry ó it still can happen. If youíre looking for ways to save in the coming weeks, use the America Saves theme to help you save this holiday season: Set a goal. Make a plan. Save automatically.

1. Set a goal: Set a holiday budget and stick to it. Decide how much you want to spend on gifts for the people on your gift list, and stick to that amount. Remember, at holiday time itís the thought that counts, and spending more than you plan means debt and stress in the New Year. (And thatís a crummy gift for your family.)

Some people enjoy giving gifts to non-family members, but they are often forgotten when setting a holiday budget. These include gifts for teachers, babysitters, hairstylists, pastors and others. Consider writing handwritten notes expressing thanks or appreciation rather than buying gifts when possible to reduce your spending costs.

Donít forget to factor in all extra items that will cost money during the holiday season. Such extras include decorations, grab-bag gift exchanges, extra food and drink, greeting cards and postage, travel expenses, holiday donations, babysitter fees and shopping costs such as gas and parking. Be sure to budget for these extras.

2. Make a plan: Plan ways to save money now for your holiday expenses later. Put what you save aside into a savings account to fund your holiday budget goals.

You can save by skipping the takeout or restaurant meals from now until holiday time. Taking your lunch to work, buying quick frozen meals for dinner and taking advantage of holiday parties can save you a little cash during the holiday season.

Another way to slash costs is to limit your entertainment spending. Save money by renting movies or borrowing from the library, or even better, check out the many holiday movies network and cable channels broadcast throughout November and December. Enjoy free holiday concerts at churches and community events, and look for cost-free ways to enjoy family time, such as raking and jumping in leaves, playing in the snow, caroling and spending time with friends.

Donít overlook the value of small saving steps. Putting aside $1 a day of pocket money between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25 will add up to an extra $55 for holiday expenses.

3. Save automatically: Pay yourself first. Each payday until the holidays end, set up an automatic savings transfer of 5 percent to 10 percent of your paycheck to use for holiday gifts, groceries and travel. If you donít see it, you wonít be tempted to spend it. You may end up saving even more than you actually need for the holidays, and with money you save, you can start an emergency fund for the New Year.

The holidays can be a strain on every budget, but they donít have to lead to a burden of debt. For more ideas, access the resources and tips of the America Saves program through the K-State Research and Extension portal at www.kansassaves.org.

Linda K. Beech is Ellis County

Extension agent for family and

consumer sciences.