The holidays are upon us and advertising is at its annual peak, enticing us with "prices too low to ignore" and "last-chance shopping deals." Yes, everyone loves the holidays, but the retailers depend upon them, since booming fourth-quarter business receipts are often what delivers the lion's share of annual profits. And our beloved telephones? Well, they are re-targeting machines, sending us ads for products we may have laid only a passing glance upon, sometimes convincing us that that little whim—socks with your dog's face on them, anyone?—is a must-have.
So yes, this 24/7 advertising environment is great for retailers—and bad for budgets. All these marketing messages are designed to woo you and weaken your resolve to stay on budget. So here are 10 effective strategies to keep your finances on track. Avoid that January hangover and keep your holiday spending on track.
1) Make plans instead of purchases
It is natural to want to shower loved ones with gifts and give them everything they desire—and to desire things yourself. And children beg for the latest toys and gadgets based on the last few commercials they've seen. But, typically, by the time the next year rolls around you have no idea what gifts you gave or received. The toys are broken and forgotten, the stocking stuffers stuffed into storage and everyone has moved on to the next popular "thing." But research shows us, again and again, that you are much more likely to remember who you spent time with rather than what gifts you received: experiences trump belongings, always. So keep the purpose of the holidays in mind—enjoying time spent with family, friends and other loved ones—and focus on what you'll do, not what you'll buy.
2) Let your list be your guide.
There is something about writing things down that helps you stay on track with buying: you enter the store focused, having thought out what you need, fill your cart and out you go. You just need a little discipline to keep yourself from being seduced by "just one extra thing." And here's what a little discipline is worth: about $5,400. That's how much an average American is estimated to spend on impulse buys in a single year. Good reason to adopt shopping lists for more than your holiday shopping: groceries, household items when you run to the hardware store, back-to-school shopping, lawn and garden needs, and more!
3) Calculate all holiday costs, not just gifts.
When you put together a holiday budget it is common to only budget for gifts—but holiday spending has no boundaries and can take many forms. Don't forget to include travel to see family, entertaining, food for family feasts, holiday parties at work, decorations, and that tree, if you celebrate Christmas. Once you have a budget established—and see exactly what you want to spend on the holidays—look for ways to reduce everyday costs so you don't find yourself pulling out a credit card. Maybe you choose not to eat out at all in November and December to free up more money for your holiday entertaining. Most important: build your holidays around what you already have, for the most savings of all.
4) Know non-sale pricing for the items on your list.
Prices differ from store to store—sometimes by a lot!—and a discount store may have a lower everyday price than a department store's sale price on the exact same item. Before you buy any big-ticket item (or even small items!), do a quick Google search and see what prices come up. You can save yourself a lot of money—and regret!—this way.
5) Add up the total costs.
During the holidays, many companies offer promotions such as $10 off when you spend X dollars, 20 percent off your total order, or cash back that can be used on the next visit. But the truth is, if you have to spend more to get these deals, you're not getting a deal anymore. And be careful to always think about sales tax and shipping costs, which can add up to real money really fast. Know exactly what you're spending, before you hit the Check Out button.
6) Always look for coupon codes.
With online access and apps, it is easy to search for current coupon codes for particular stores as well as specific items. Use the technology available to find additional discounts and savings. Companies offer discounts to encourage loyalty and the codes are designed to entice you to spend more and can include spending thresholds to qualify for the discount. Google "discount or coupon codes" for your specific product and try the codes at checkout.
7) Be the early bird—and get the savings.
Last-minute shopping is more expensive because you aren't operating with the luxury of time, which can create an environment of stress. And when you're stressed? You are more likely to ignore your usual rules and discipline (i.e. your budget). Also stressful is that the selection of items is likely reduced, so you may find yourself compromising not only on how much you need to spend, but also what you want to buy. And if you've already missed early shopping for this season? Put a little thought into what handmade items you can give, sharing something of yourself, instead of buying something less-than-perfect.
8) Change up your gift-giving.
Reducing the number of gifts you buy will instantly and directly impact the budget—in the best way possible. So consider the groups of people with whom you plan to exchange gifts: Can you put a dollar limit on family gifts? Create a family pool and draw names, so you buy one nice gift instead of 11 (or 23! or more!) smaller gifts? Some families forgo adult gifts and focus on the children, while others eliminate the gift exchange altogether. Among friends and at the office, create a Secret Santa or a Yankee Gift Swap to streamline giving (everyone will be relieved). And definitely consider making gifts. Pinterest is a great resource for amazing ideas on a shoestring. It won't feel like you were "cheap" and the gifts will be a lot more personal.
9) Don't jump when offered a discount to open a credit card.
Companies push credit card sign-ups over the holidays. You know: "Save an additional 10 percent! It only takes a minute!" Even online stores have joined the game. But don't do it. Saving a few dollars but putting a wide-open credit card in your pocket can definitely encourage overspending, especially at the holidays. Remember: there is no such thing as free money, ever.
10) Use cash or a single credit card.
If you narrow how you do your holiday shopping to just one method, you will find it much easier to stay on track and on budget. Take one card and use it only for holiday spending. That way you check in weekly online and see exactly where you are and how that compares to your designated budget at a glance. Better still? Use actual cash. Take out from the ATM what you plan to spend for the holidays and split it up into envelopes for each category of expense: decorations, food, presents, travel. And when the envelope is empty? You're done, unless you borrow from another envelope and cut back there, instead. It's a surefire way to make your spending visible and to make overspending impossible.
The holidays can be a nostalgic time of the year. We each carry around an idealized holiday experience we hope will happen in our heads, but the truth is holidays are just regular life, filled with great moments and disappointments, too. The best way to enjoy the holidays is to spend within your means and leave some downtime for relaxing, all so you can start off the new year unburdened with credit card debit.