The holidays can be a very stressful time for service members with limited financial resources.

On one hand, they want to ensure loved ones experience the meals, gifts and joys of the season. On the other, they may have to consider what bills will go unpaid in order to make the festivities happen. Many resort to credit or deplete their savings to cover the costs, which leaves them struggling financially for months ahead.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid this dilemma is to create a special holiday fund early in the year and keep it growing with small contributions each payday. The use of pre-planned funds, or savings accounts as a more general term, is a good way to set parameters on spending and help alleviate the financial stress of not only the holidays, but also family vacations or even unexpected emergencies throughout the year.

Those who did not budget for the holidays and find themselves short on cash should consider alternatives for merriment and gift-giving. From an overall food-cost standpoint, for example, the commissary is usually a better option than most supermarkets. Look for seasonal savings at commercial grocers as well … BOGOs and items marked at 50 percent off to get people in the door are a great opportunity for cost-conscious, disciplined shoppers.

With presents, does it really have to be the latest and greatest electronic gadget, or would a well-thought-out gift from the thrift shop, flea market or a yard sale garner equal or greater appreciation?

Many people are turning back to more crafty gifts or used items that only need touch-up paint or mending. Those types of things are cherished because they require time, energy and forethought rather than an effortless swipe of the credit card. Furthermore, gifts from the heart are usually good for the budget.

Those who choose to “go commercial” with gift-giving should remember to set a dollar amount for each person on their list and an overall spending cap to avoid the “no money until next payday” situation. Many wise shoppers take advantage of free layaway deals – the Exchange recently extended its program to laptops, iPads and other electronic gadgets. It’s a good way to defray the cost of big-ticket items and not break the budget.

Most of all, it’s important to avoid holiday hype. Commercial marketing teams do a good job of planting the seeds of “get it now and save,” and there are obvious reasons why sales clerks are so adamant about using their store credit cards to “get an extra 10 percent off.” Always remember the bottom lines – is it something you can really afford; will the interest rate negate the savings; and will the joy of having the product outweigh the stress of being financially strapped for weeks or months to come?

With a little forethought and strategic budgeting, anyone can make the holiday season special while dodging serious financial strain. There are numerous online resources that offer tips for smart holiday spending, and assistance is available through the Financial Readiness Program at the Army Community Service facility, building 9023, Mahone Avenue. For an appointment, call (804) 734-6210.