If you were aghast at how much you spent on holiday gifts when the credit card bills arrived last January, now is the time to start thinking about how to avoid a repeat performance. Even though it may feel shockingly early to begin thinking about the holidays, starting now will give you plenty of time to plan, budget, and build a shopping fund so after New Year's, you'll hardly have a bill to pay. Below, financial experts share their favorite tips for emerging from the holidays virtually debt-free.
1. Look Back
It's an ideal time to set a budget for your holiday shopping, but where to begin? Roshni Chowdhry, innovation and product development lead at SafetyNet, recommends looking at your past spending history. "We have a tendency to underestimate how much we will spend on gifts each holiday season," she says. "Make a list of what you bought last year and note what was necessary and what wasn't—then eliminate the latter. This will give you a realistic measure of how much you should plan to spend."
2. Make a Gift List
Making a list of whom you need to buy for and how much you plan to spend per person is an effective way to stay organized. Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer for background-check service BeenVerified, says, "You can save yourself a lot by shopping from a list. This can prevent impulse buying, and thus, limit overspending."
Before you finalize the list, Catey Hill, author of The 30-Minute Money Plan for Moms: How to Maximize Your Family Budget in Minimal Time, recommends asking yourself if you're giving gifts to people you're no longer connected to. "For people you don't chat a lot with during the year, consider sending a card rather than a physical gift," she says.
3. Change It Up
If you can't get to a comfortable budget with your current list of recipients, Jerry Patterson, senior vice president of retirement at Principal Financial Group, suggests that holding a family gift exchange or white elephant party—instead of buying many individual gifts—can be a fun way for everyone to celebrate and save money. "Set a spending limit that everyone is comfortable with to keep things fair and affordable," he suggests.
4. Build a Holiday Fund
Chowdhry advocates for having a specific fund for holiday shopping rather than drawing from any savings you already have. "Withdraw whatever you can afford to stash away each payday, whether it's $20 or $200," she advises. "When it comes time to do your shopping, use your saved cash first so you know exactly what you're spending and can avoid pulling from your more important savings account."
5. Turn Pennies into Presents
Patterson suggests saving even more money by saving all your spare change. He says, "At the end of each day, make an effort to throw your extra cash and spare change into a jar. If you start now and commit to regularly adding to the pot, these small contributions can add up before the holiday shopping season begins."
6. Eliminate Excess Spending
Consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch likes to save by cutting back on extras for a few months. "Review your spending over the past several months and identify areas where you can cut back," she says. "Whether it's weekly takeout, weekend spa appointments, or too many morning lattes, there is always room in your budget to cut back and boost your holiday savings."
She suggests putting that money into a savings program at your bank or local credit union or using a site like SmartyPig.com, a free service that helps you stash cash for any purpose.
7. Play It Smart with Credit Cards
While you're shopping, Steve Hasbrooke, the VP controller at Mission Federal Credit Union, recommends limiting your spending to one credit card, preferably the card with the lowest interest rate. "This will save you money by paying less interest while you pay off your holiday purchases," he says.
And try to avoid the lure of opening a new store credit card while you're out shopping. According to Dana Vas Nunes, senior manager of deposit products at Alliant Credit Union, "Retailers are incentivized to push them during the holiday season, and they often offer perks like a 15% discount if you open a card that day. But that discount can actually come at a steep cost. Most store cards have higher fees/costs than traditional credit card providers; it's how they offset the discounts." If you do decide to open a new card, do your research ahead of time and consider one of these recommended store credit cards.
8. Reap the Rewards
Speaking of credit cards, remember to let your credit cards work for you. Woroch suggests that between social events, back-to-school shopping, and family getaways, you likely racked up quite a few points on your credit card over the summer. "Use those points to offset your holiday spending by turning them into gift cards," she says. "You can give these cards as gifts or use them to pay for gifts."
9. Get Started Now
Giving yourself a few months to shop for holiday gifts allows plenty of time to find the perfect present and the best prices. Hasbrooke says, "If you're like me, you have probably found yourself scrambling for a last-minute gift. This often leads to spontaneous purchases of items that may not be exactly what you would have chosen if you had more time to consider the purchase. It can also lead to spending more on that item than you budgeted for."
10. Consider Layaway
Lavelle suggests that layaway can be a helpful tool to spread your spending out over a few months. He explains, "It is a concept from the past, but many stores are bringing it back, especially for toys and household items. The store will keep the item and allow you to make small payments toward the purchase price until you have it paid off."
11. Get Creative
Save money on holiday gifts by making some of them yourself, which is something that Certified Financial Consultant Jim Szakacs of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, recommends. "Consider giving gifts that you've made with your own two hands," he says. "Nothing communicates more personally during the holidays than opening a gift that you know someone has spent time not only thinking about, but actually making for you."
By following these tips now, you can avoid the shock of those post-holiday bills a few months down the road. Plan ahead to make sure you can enjoy your holidays without financial stress.