How should nervous, frugal, business owners and creative managers spend money over the next three weeks? This month I’ve found myself in a couple odd year-end planning conversations with clients.

One owner of a large design firm which did very well in 2008 told me her CPA is pressing them to spend some of their pre-tax profits before December ends. A manager of an in-house creative departments has remaining funds in his 2008 budget, and wants to know what purchases will have the greatest impact for their team over the coming year.

Both are justifiably wary about today’s economy, and nervous about what budgets are going to look like next year.

Here is our list of frugal ways you might spend end-of-year dollars, while preparing your company for potentially lean times ahead.

Note: I anticipate a lot of comments from readers with suggestions on where and what to buy. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. If there is enough activity, we’ll compile the best suggestions into a separate post with the best frugal year-end shopping tips.

1. Replace Aging Mac Hardware.

This is a perfect time to upgrade and replace a couple old Macs in the office. For the best use of money, iMacs provide plenty of power and speed for most designers today. The more expensive Mac Pros can be saved for serious Photoshop or video users. Amazon still has a few late-model MacBook Pros in stock. If you can pass on the new sturdier designs, these are a terrific deal (we picked up a 2.5GHz for our team last month).

Amazon: MacBook Pro 2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 200GB HD – $1,593

Amazon: MacBook Pro 2.5GHz, 2GB RAM, 250GB HD – $1,699

2. Fix Your Backup!

Designers inevitably skimp on their backup. If you’ve outgrown your studio’s backup, now is the time to buy the larger backup drives you need to keep your work safe. And (bluntly) if 2009 is going to be a financially stressful year, you need a good backup in place before it starts. Financial troubles lead to stress in the workplace, turnover of staff, overworked people, and occasional stupid decisions. That’s exactly when you need a good backup in place to protect you. So if you’ve got the money now, use it to buy some insurance for your studio.

3. Invest in Training: Web, Flash, and Interactive PDFs.

One of the best places to invest money is in improving your own skills. Pick some areas you need to sharpen up for a more competative market. As companies save money by reducing their printing costs, we anticipate more design will move to PDF, web, and Flash. So start investing some of your time in building those skills now.

Suggestions: has an amazing archive of all-you-can-eat video training for $25/month. Designers in the Seattle area, check out the web publishing courses at Luminous Works. And of course, take a look at our own upcoming workshops and webinars at Creativetechs.

4. Market yourself better in 2009.

Now is the time to invest in improving your own online marketing engine. Improve your website, start using email newsletters to keep in contact with clients, explore online social networking, and maybe even start a blog. It can be intimidating to get started. Begin investing in the education and improve your online presence for your studio in 2009 and beyond.

Suggestion: I teach monthly Online Marketing Seminars at Lumious Works in Seattle on the second Monday of each month. Today, Dec 8th, the topic is Managing Your Google Brand.

5. Buy CS4 now.

Creativetechs isn’t formally recommending CS4 for our clients quite yet. We tend to wait at least three months after a major release before pushing our clients to upgrade. But by March we will probably be recommending CS4 as our preferred version. So if you know you’ll be buying CS4 next year anyway, and if you have the money now, it may make sense to do it before the end of the year.

Plus, if you are upgrading from older copies of CS or CS2, you can upgrade for the same price as people moving from CS3. This offer ends on February 28, 2009. Details on Adobe’s FAQ.

Suggestion: If you purchase CS4, make sure to buy a volume license from Adobe. It will save you money today, and it will cut support costs for the next 16 months.

6. Prepay support services.

If you have money you should spend in 2008 and you are nervous about 2009, this may be a perfect time to ask about prepaying — with a discount — Internet, phone, or any other monthly service you subscribe to. As an example, some of our corporate clients have used remaining 2008 budgets to prepay Mac support services to ensure they have support for the coming year.

7. Let your staff work from home.

Now may be the time to set up your studio for easy remote access. Let your designers or freelancers work remotely. This could be particulaly important for Seattle area creative firms, because if the Alaskan Way Viaduct is replaced, we’re expected to suffer significant traffic impacts through 2011.

Note: Creativetechs is moving towards stronger remote support options. We’re already offering our training workshops remotely as webinars. This month we’re taking our own advice and investing in new tools and training to provide a whole new level of cost-effective remote monitoring and support tools for our clients.

8. Upgrade your server.

This is for larger teams with significant funds to spend. One big investment you can still make in December that will continue to pay off in 2009 and beyond is upgrading to a server that’s big enough and fast enough to help your team work more effectively. Smart server upgrades are a way to spend money today that improves your workflow in lean months to come.

9. Cut your per-person support costs.

This one also applies to larger teams. Invest in network and server tools that let you drastically cut your per-person support costs. Tools like netboot and network disk images for software deployment can drastically simplify and reduce support costs for larger Mac based teams.

As an example: This week Creativetechs is building a NetInstall image at Costco to deploy 80 new Macs across their various creative teams. Read the article Configure And Deploy NetInstall describing this technique on our sister blog Make Mac Work.

10. Invest in little things that make a big difference.

Finally, there are a lot of small investments that can have a huge impact in people’s daily routine. Consider investing in some minor upgrades as year-end treats for your team:

– Bigger Workstation Hard Drives
– Replacement Mice & Keyboards
– Battery backups
– Etc.

What’s On Your Frugal Year-End List?

What are some frugal ways you plan to spend money before the end of the year? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. If there is enough activity, we’ll compile the best suggestions into a separate post with the best frugal year-end shopping tips.