The holiday shopping season officially starts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. So, most of us are gearing up to tackle the our holiday budget planning. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend nearly $25 billion during November and December on gift cards alone. Think about this at a personal level: if you charge an extra $1,000 on your credit card and pay a minimum of $25 per month, at 19% interest it ‘ll take you nearly 5 1/2 years to pay for those gifts! And don’t forget that during those years, you’ll face five more holidays with more expenses.
So why not take a different approach this year. We’ve collected some ideas on how you can balance your desire to shower your loved ones with gifts with your need to reach other important financial goals such as reducing debt and increasing savings.
But we’re not Scrooge! Here are 10 tips from Mint to help you celebrate the holidays… while keeping your spending in check.
Make a List
* Know what you have. If you can only spare $600, it’s better to know that before you start shopping, instead of shopping blindly per person, then attempting damage control afterward. You can use Mint.com to easily determine your average monthly spending by category and set a budget for your holiday gifts.
* Remember non-gift expenses. Holidays expenses don’t stop at gifts. They include travel expenses, gift-wrap, tape, food, household decorations, etc. Account for these things in your budget so there are no surprises.
* Best Option: Use cash. It’s harder to let go of money when it’s real cash. Handing over 10 $20 bills for that Nintendo Wii for your little brother might make you think twice. How about some new Wii games instead of an upgraded player?
* Second Best Option: Don’t spend more that it’ll take to pay off in one month. Friends and family don’t expect you to sacrifice your credit for their happiness. If it’s going to impact your financial health and ability to reach your goals, they won’t want you to spend it.
Check it Twice
* Reduce the length of your “must buy for” list. Make up your “nice” list… and then review it. Do your hairdresser and mailman really need gifts from you? Reduce expenses by sending cards, or letters of praise to their bosses, if you want to share your appreciation.
* Think outside the (gift wrapped) box. Write a poem, sing a song, bake cookies, make arts and crafts, spend time, or make a coupon book for free chores. If buying for more than one person in the same family, buy a group gift-something they can all appreciate.
* Shop online. Malls are designed to get you to spend more money than you’d planned. With online shopping, you can make more objective, smarter purchasing decisions.
* Get the best price. Use comparison-shopping sites like nextag.com, pricegrabber.com, and bizrate.com to find the cheapest price. Ebates.com will refund a percentage of what you spend if you shop through it. Search Google for coupon codes to get free shipping or a percentage off your total. Keep track of prices before or after you buy using services like those mentioned in our recent 5 Sources for Savings and Rebates on the Web post.
* Keep detailed records. Know what you bought, for whom, and for how much. Keep a tally of what you’ve spent and what’s left. This will ensure you don’t exceed your limits this year … and will help you plan a budget for next year.
* Put money away. Starting in January, put money away monthly in a high-yield savings or money market account. At the end of the year, you’ll have what you need for your 2011 holiday shopping.
* Build your gift giving fund! Put those savings in a high-yield savings account. The higher rates you earn, the better you’ll be able to meet the budget you have set for your next year’s holiday shopping.
These are some of the shopping strategies we’ll be using this year. What are some others that you’ve found helpful?
This article was originally published on 11/22/2007 and updated on 11/19/2010.