This year is bound to be a last-minute shopping season doozy — that's because the shortened time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas means people have fewer days to begin with. According to research and polls, about 50 percent of people haven't finished their holiday shopping yet (and some of that group hasn't even started). But just because your time is crunched doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind and spend more than you have (or give crummy gifts). 

The coauthor of the book "Happy Money," Michael Norton, offers the following suggestions (detailed in the video below), and they're smart — a few of them I've actually promoted in years past. They will save you money, headaches and gift-giving remorse. And if you plan it right, some of these could be fun for you, too. Before you head to the mall, put your Christmas list next to this list (below, which I've extrapolated upon) and make a plan for each person you want to gift. You might end up with a shorter list of stuff than you think, and plenty of affordable, genuinely thoughtful solutions. 

1. Buy experiences: Check out your local calendar for upcoming rock shows or theater events; gift a massage or facial; or give the present of a weekend away somewhere near where you live (the cost of a dinner and night at a unique B&B). Play your cards right, and you could share in this fun too! Even a dinner at a local restaurant that is a little bit pricier than a couple — especially new parents — could normally afford will make for a memorable evening. 

2. Make it a treat: Like the dinner idea above, giving a present that is a little bit extravagant is more fun and special. If you are on a limited budget, that's OK; instead of giving the gift of a meal at the best bistro in town, you can give one for wine and dessert — it will still feel special and fun. Less of a great experience is better than more of a mediocre one.   

3. Buy time: Pay for a house cleaner, childcare, or some other "Get Out of Jail Free" card that gives people the gift of their own time back to them. It will warm any overworked person's heart, I promise. 

4. Pay now, consume later: Wine-of-the-month, design-of-the-month, natural beauty subscription boxes (like Goodebox), and relaxation-care kits like Yuzen that arrive every 30 days are a simple and regular reminder to your giftee that you care for them — for the whole year through. 

5. Invest in others: Buy people what they ask for. A common misconception is that if you get someone what they ask for, they will be upset that you weren't more creative, but most people love getting what they ask for (it shows you were listening to them!). 

And remember, as Norton says, "Small gifts that aren't expensive make a difference for happiness." So if you are out of ideas, even something less-than-perfect shows you were thinking of the person. 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Nervous about holiday spending? Shop smarter
Just because you're shopping at the last minute doesn't mean you're destined to make bad decisions.