How to Survive the Holidays Without Going Broke

Create a simple holiday budget that you will actually want to stick to—one that even leaves room for an eggnog latte or two.

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Nov 27 2018, 1:45pm

You don’t have to be a Grinch this holiday season. In fact, there are plenty of ways to make things merry and bright without waking up in a post-holiday haze full of spending regrets.

Let’s get one thing straight first. This is a judgement-free zone. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for how you spend your cash this Christmas. That’s between you and your budget.

But you have to make a budget. You do.

Budgeting conjures up all sorts of bad feelings. But this isn’t about depriving yourself or going all Scrooge on your loved ones. It’s a quick and painless way to keep you on track. Think of yourself as a financially savvy Santa.

Layer in a few of these savings tips and you have the recipe for a stress-free shopping season. It’ll help you free up the mental capacity for things that really matter, like spending time with family and friends and trying to figure out just how much eggnog is too much eggnog.

Here’s how to get started:

Step 1: Work backwards

The first thing you need to do is be realistic. Consumers say they will spend an average of $1,007 during the holiday season this year, according to the annual survey from the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. That’s up more than four percent from last year’s average.

Are you planning to spend that much? More? Less? Come up with a total amount and then ask yourself how you’re going to pay for it. Is it coming from a savings account or a sinking fund that you set up earlier this year? Are you working extra hours this month? Santa’s elves might work around the clock this holiday season, but do you really want to? Be reasonable and realistic here.

Step 2 : Create categories

Celebrating the holiday season means something different to everyone. Maybe you don’t exchange gifts but you host a lot of parties. Maybe your work throws a company shindig at a swanky restaurant. They foot the entire bill, but you want a new outfit. Consider all the different times you might find yourself reaching for your wallet and create categories. Some suggestions include:

  • Gifts. Put all the people that you intend to buy for on your list.
  • Holiday greetings. If you send Christmas cards (or New Year’s cards -- you do you, I’m not here to rush), calculate the cost. It adds up quickly!
  • Postage/shipping. Are you sending greetings via snail mail or paying for shipping? Ballpark the amount.
  • Entertaining. Whether you are going to be the host, the guest, or both, you’ll want to think about how many different times you plan to eat, drink, and be merry this year. Meals, appetizers, desserts, drinks. It all adds up.
  • Holiday events. Maybe there’s a light event at the zoo one evening or you just want to leave room for an eggnog latte or two.
  • Clothing/grooming. Springing for a new holiday shirt, outfit, manicure or haircut? Factor that in too.
  • Travel. Headed out of town for the holidays? Add the cost of fuel, flights, and pet sitting if you have a dog or cat that will need watching while you’re away.

Once you’ve created all the categories, you will want to add some detail to each. You also want to start prioritizing. This will help you determine how you should divvy up your money from Step 1.

Step 3: Start spending and tracking

This step is key. Think of it as a food journal for your wallet. The best budget is meaningless if you ignore it.

Fear not. There are plenty of apps that you can use to log your spending automatically. Popular apps include You Need a Budget and Mint, and there are dozens more in the App Store or Google Play. You could also use a Google spreadsheet or even a paper notebook to manually record your purchases. Whichever way you choose, you’ll know if you’re on track.

Find creative ways to save

You’ve created a budget and have started shopping. Whether you’re starting to realize you have too many commitments and not enough cash or you simply want some extra money to save or spend how you see fit, there are ways to save this holiday season. And it isn’t just about shopping sales.

Check your list twice. Maybe there are a few people on your list that you don’t need to buy for. You could bake something or spend time together. Presence over presents. But if you really want to keep going with gifts, make the switch to a Secret Santa or a White Elephant party.

And your receipts. OK, checking your receipts isn’t part of the song, but it’s still an important step. You can either save them in an envelope, snap a photo on your phone, or scan them into an app. In addition to helping out someone who needs to swap a size, receipts can help your budget, too. Most stores offer price match and price adjustment policies. That means if you spot the item for less at the same store or somewhere else, you could get money back.

Remix your wardrobe. Thanksgiving is a stone’s throw away from other winter holidays. Accessorize, mix and match, layer, or just rewear the whole dang outfit. If you looked good in it in November, why wouldn’t you wear it again in December?

Regift. Really. There’s a right way and a wrong way to regift. If you hosted a party earlier in the year and someone gifted you a bottle of wine, you can absolutely pass it along. Or maybe you happened to buy a few bottles during a stock-up sale. No one will know that you didn’t run out and pay full price the night before. Just make sure that you never ever regift to the original giver. Instead, bring a box of chocolates from your boss to your neighbors or bring in your neighbor’s cookies to a work luncheon. Save cash and calories.

Suggest alternatives. Traditions can be beautiful, but they can also exist simply out of habit. If you typically meet up with a friend for a few laps around the mall to socialize, suggest a park or a neighborhood stroll instead. There will be plenty of festive cheer along with opportunities to catch up. The bonus is that there is no temptation to buy just one more thing.

Lastly, remember that no one is trying to take away your holiday cheer. Instead, creating a simple budget and tracking your spending are easy steps to a happier holiday.

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