Festive finances: 6 guilt-free gifts to give to yourself

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the end of Ramadan, chances are there will be at least a few gifts as part of the festivities. But while gifts — and shopping for them — always feature prominently around the holidays, there's one type of gift that's getting a lot of press this year: the kind you give to yourself. And no, we're not talking about the warm and fuzzy feeling you get in return for giving a gift to someone else; according to the National Retail Federation, shoppers admitted that they plan to spend an average of $237 on themselves this year, a 27 percent increase over last year.

'Self gifting' is increasingly becoming a holiday tradition, right up there with department store Santas and fattening food. Unfortunately, when the bills come rolling in in January, what initially brought good cheer often digs up another emotion altogether: guilt.

[More: 6 holiday shopping tips you can take to the bank]

When you've worked hard all year, perhaps you do deserve to treat yourself over the holidays. The key is to stick to things that will keep the good feelings rolling into the New Year. Here are some guilt-free self-gifts that'll pay dividends all year long.

1) A financial plan

If you're thinking this gift isn't nearly as much fun as a new cashmere sweater, you may be on to something but bear with us - because while a financial plan won't add flair to your wardrobe, it can help keep you warm and cozy. Rather than hurrying out to spend money in exchange for a short-term rush, sit down with a cup of tea and decide what you really want your life to look like and what financial plan can help you to get there. Are you hoping to start a family? Own your own business? Retire sooner? These things are often more within our reach than we realize; the key is to make a plan that'll help you get there.

[More: Prepping for a holiday credit crunch: How to save money this holiday season ]

Don't believe us? The world is full of people who've done it. Acclaimed Canadian author Camilla Gibb transformed herself - from working in administration to becoming a successful novelist - propelled by just $6,000, a weather-beaten trailer and a laptop she plugged into the stove. Money is something with the power to bring you closer to the life you want to lead, but the only way to get closer to that life is to take charge of how you make, spend and manage your cash flow.

The life you want...now how's that for a gift?

2) A budget

According to the Canadian Omnibus Poll on budgeting, saving and investing, 24 percent of Canadians never budget, and only 46 percent follow a budget all the time. It's clear that many people just don't like making — or sticking to — a budget. But you know what? Taking an honest look at your finances and setting a realistic budget that'll help you meet your goals (and the financial plan we discussed above) is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

Start by sitting down and taking a look at your necessary expenses (like rent), then set reasonable spending targets for the more flexible expenses (like food, clothing and fun) without spending more than you earn. Not only will this simple plan help you to live within your means, it's also a sure-fire way to reduce financial stress. If you really want to be good to yourself, find room for regular saving too.

[More: Splurging on the host, saving the most this holiday season]

3) An RRSP contribution

The deadline for RRSP contributions this year is March 1, 2013, so if you're going to drop some money around the holiday season, why not make a contribution? If you get in the habit of giving yourself this gift for Christmas, it can go a long way toward helping you prepare for retirement. Plus, you might just get to celebrate again in April when you get a tax refund.

If you don't think you can manage it, start small; just $500 per year at a modest 3 percent interest rate will net you nearly $10,000 in 15 years ($2,500 of which is interest). Will it pay for your retirement? No, but it's a start, and it does show how far small efforts can go. So search your couch, empty the change jar and do what you can to find extra money for your RRSP. Compound interest really is the gift that keeps on giving!

4) A class on investing

Many people steer clear of investing because they're afraid to put their money into something they don't understand. We hear you; investing can be confusing — and intimidating. It can be, but it doesn't have to be, at least not if you know how it works. Rather than continuing with the duck-and-cover approach to managing your money, treat yourself to a little enlightenment by attending an investing class or workshop. For example, Mount Royal University in Calgary offers several courses (many of which are available online) on personal finance, investing and even real estate. If you're a whiz at self-study, Morningstar also offers free online courses for prospective investors.

[More: 'Tis the season to splurge: 5 retailer tricks that make you spend more]

If you don't know a thing about investing, the resources are out there to help you become more knowledgeable. A course might cost you some time and money, but the skills you learn should help deliver better returns that you could ever hope to find at the mall.

5) Time

Time is technically free, but for many of us, free time is the scarcest commodity imaginable. The holidays can be an especially hectic time, which is why they're the best time to try to carve out a little time for yourself. But here's the catch: In order for it to be a true gift, you can't spend it attached to your iPhone or pushing a vacuum cleaner. So find some time to do something you enjoy and wouldn't normally take the time to do, whether that means reading a book, taking a nap or just staring idly out the window.

The payback? A little less stress and a little more sanity - two things that can be especially hard to find in December.

6) Sleep

You could buy a cozy down blanket, or a new pair of PJs, but that's all just fantasy. Give yourself the real deal; have a glass of wine, change the sheets, snuggle down early and put those statutory holidays to good use by sneaking in a few extra hours of rest. You know those days when you'd pay any money to look better, feel better and have more energy? Well, here's your chance. And the best part is, it won't cost you a thing.

The best gift ever

There's nothing wrong with treating yourself now and then as long as it doesn't leave you flat broke and full of remorse. But let's face it: Many of the things you buy for yourself will be in the giveaway pile by spring.  If you think you need a little something, try giving yourself one of these guilt-free gifts. You — and your bank account — will be healthier and happier for it.

GoldenGirlFinance.ca is a free personal finance and education site for women.

Nothing contained herein is intended to provide personalized financial, legal or tax advice. Before implementing any financial or legal strategy, you should obtain information and advice from your financial, legal and/or tax advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances, as well as fully aware of current laws and regulations.

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