How to Avoid the Holiday Overspending Trap

Tell us how you stay in control of your holiday spending (without feeling like a Grinch) and you could win a $100 Macy’s gift card.

By Lexi Gray Andrews

The holidays are a seemingly good excuse for many people to throw their careful budgeting habits out the window. Each year, the holiday obligations keep piling on—and whether it’s a family dinner, an office get together or gift giving among friends, it’s hard to avoid spending cash that we wouldn’t otherwise be shelling out. Before you fall into the holiday ritual of overspending, here are some tips that will help you stay in line with old traditions without maxing out your credit cards.

Assess your budget, track your spending
The first step in keeping holiday spending in check is to decide the most you can afford to spend. Gregory Karp, author of The 1-2-3 Money Plan: The Most Important Steps to Saving and Spending Smart, suggests that no more than 1.5 percent of your gross income should be spent on all holiday items, and that includes gifts, travel, decorations and entertaining. That means if your household has $60,000 in income, you would spend no more than $900 for all holiday expenses. “But if you’re deeply in debt, consider spending much less,” Karp said.

Once you’ve established how much you’re going to spend, stay strong! One way to do this is to diligently track your spending using a system that you can easily follow and maintain. Tracey McBride, author of Frugal Luxuries by the Seasons: Celebrate the Holidays with Elegance and Simplicity–on Any Income suggests designating an envelope for each person or event on your holiday list. Write the name of the person or event on the outside of an envelope, and place inside the exact cash amount you wish to spend on each.

“When I do my holiday gift shopping I simply take the envelopes, and no credit cards, and spend only what I’ve budgeted. Keep these in a safe, hard to get to compartment of your purse, or in your front pocket if you don’t use a purse,” McBride said.

Curb spending on gifts and other holiday cheer
Sometimes saving cash around the holidays is all about good timing. A little-known shopping tip is that if you visit a store after 6 p.m. the day before an advertised sale, you have a good chance of getting those discounted prices before anyone else, Karp said. Many retailers program their registers the evening prior to a big sale, Karp added, meaning that consumers will often get these sale prices before they are even posted throughout the store.

Shopping online may also keep your spending under control. “Research shows that the sights, sounds and smells of a retail store can entice us to spend impulsively. Shopping online for holiday gifts can keep you on task and allow you to avoid temptations,” Karp said.

Another huge holiday expense that just seems to grow each year is the tradition of mailing out greeting cards to friends, family members and associates. Karp suggests purchasing boxed holiday cards at your local dollar store or warehouse club. For those who won’t be offended by not receiving a physical card, consider sending a holiday e-card. Keep these personal by attaching a few digital family photographs.

Partying on a budget
The pressure is on during the holidays to attend numerous types of parties and social gatherings, and there may be different expectations that come with each one. If your friends are getting together to exchange gifts, one of the most popular ways to save money is doing a random gift exchange where you draw names from a hat and only buy for the person whose name you pulled, suggests Adam Leone, financial advisor with Modera Wealth Management in Old Tappan, NJ.

If you happen to be hosting a party of your own, one of the easiest ways to save money is to avoid overspending on alcohol. “Everyone wants to make every possible drink under the sun, but if you focus on a few unique cocktails, you can still keep your guests happy,” said Leone. Many food-related and general interest magazines often have recipes for fun, holiday-themed cocktails that won’t break the bank.

To keep your guests happy, you may want to consider having a cocktail party instead of offering dinner. Holiday wine and cheese parties will be just as memorable, and even kinder on your wallet if each guest contributes a bottle for the party, said Kris Koederitz Melcher, author of Chick Living: Frugal and Fabulous.

Decorating for a party, or the holidays in general, is another area where you can get creative on a tight budget, said Melcher. “You don’t have to spend much on quality greenery, gorgeous ribbon, garland and small holiday accents and ornaments—craft and discount stores often have great deals on these. The same goes for simple glass votives and tea lights—which you can use year round—and these things can be the basis of holiday decorating for years to come.”

All things considered, with the proper planning it is easy to avoid the temptation to overspend during the holiday season. As Melcher noted, it is possible to “go all out without feeling put out” this year.

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