Holiday Expenses: Top Ways to Avoid Debt this Season

The holiday season is supposed to be about joy, but for many people it brings a great deal of stress. In addition to organizing and attending multiple holiday events, traveling and hosting visitors, you have to watch your budget. Otherwise, you end up with that January hangover when the bills come in.

Fortunately, you can enjoy all the season has to offer while minimizing stress about your holiday expenses. The key is to make a plan and stick with it. Try to follow some general tips as a family, so everyone is on the same page when it comes to spending money.

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1. Estimate Non-Gift Holiday Expenses

Holidays typically mean decorations and food, but also higher expenses you might not think to put in your seasonal budget. Electricity and heating is more expensive because of outdoor lights, home decor and cooking. You may also give to charity at this time of year. Review your expenses from last year to help you estimate how much the holidays typically cost.

2. Identify Gift Recipients

It’s neighborly to give small gifts to almost everyone in your circle, from your child’s piano teacher to the kindly woman who lives across the street. Make a complete list of everyone you plan to remember this year. Even if a gift is only $10, when multiplied by 10 people, that’s $100–plus interest if you slap it on a credit card and don’t pay it off right away.

3. Start Saving Early

Ideally, put aside a few dollars every month throughout the year to build a fund for holiday expenses. But life isn’t ideal, so you may only start saving when the weather begins to get colder. As soon as you turn your mind to the season, start to put money away. If you anticipate coming up short, consider taking a seasonal job or revising your original holiday expenses. You still have time to make changes.

4. Start Buying Early

Check out sales as they happen throughout the year. If there’s a sale on food you’ll eat during Thanksgiving and your holiday meals, double up and put the excess in your pantry or freezer until December. If you see the perfect gift for someone on your list, buy it when it’s on sale, even if it’s several weeks before the big day. Just remember to cross that individual off your budget!

5. Research Pricing

Look online and compare retailers for those few special items. Often flash sales and internet-only deals can get you a break on in-demand items, although you may have to buy early before they sell out.

6. Budget for the Unexpected Holiday Expenses

Set aside a bit of cash for a last-minute invitation or unexpected guest. That way you can get a hostess gift or add a plate for dinner without breaking the budget. Better yet, if you never use the money from this seasonal emergency fund, you can put it toward another priority in January.

7. Use Credit Sensibly

When you’re trying to budget, credit cards are not the enemy as long as you use them sensibly. Your credit card may offer cash back or valuable rewards points. If you want to use credit for this reason, consider using the card and immediately transferring the amount of the charge out of your bank account and onto the card.

As with any debt, awareness is crucial. If you put money on a card, write it down and post it on a bulletin board at home so you don’t forget. The more you are conscious about what you’re putting on credit, the more control you have.

Enjoy the holidays the way they are supposed to be: with friends, family and good food. In terms of your holiday expenses, all it takes is a little planning and strength to stick to the budget over the season.