(This is a seasonal repeat.)

The holidays can be hard—especially financially, and especially for people for whom money is already tight. For people already carrying some amount of unsecured debt, who are behind in bills, or have a problem with spending, they can be devastating. Every year, the 12-Step program Debtors Anonymous experiences a surge in membership starting around January 15th—as people begin to recognize just how much damage they did to themselves over Christmas, Chanukah, and more recently Kwanzaa.

Here’s a simple technique to help you keep the amount you spend on gift-buying manageable (sane). First, determine just how much you can reasonably spend on gifts this holiday—the total amount. (The key word here is reasonably.) Then:

  1. List everyone to whom you want to give gifts.
  2. Decide how much you’d like to spend on each person. You’ll want—and it will be proper—to spend more on some than others. What is essential here is that the total for all of them can’t be greater than the figure you came up with in step one.
  3. Place the amount for each person, in cash, into a separate envelope and write his or her name onto it.
  4. Take the envelopes with you when you do your present shopping.

Finally, do your shopping with your envelopes in hand (or in coat pocket or purse), spending no more on anyone than is in his or her envelope. It goes without saying or at least it should that you won’t be taking any credit cards with you when you set off to shop—not unless you want to end up even deeper in debt than you already are anyway. Best not even to take an ATM or debit card. Although using either of those two wouldn’t be debting (I like to use that word, debting, to make perfectly clear what the act actually is—incurring new debt), but both can tempt you to spend more than you truly want to or can afford.

You can use the same system for holiday entertaining. Decide on a total amount you’re willing to spend, put it in envelopes marked “Dinner Party at Home,” “Taking the In-Laws Out,” and the like, and then do your shopping or select a restaurant according to what’s in each envelope.

Do this and you’ll almost certainly wake up happy and solvent after the holidays with the family fortune still intact—or at least not simply another a day older and deeper and debt.