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A Christmas Shopping Financial Planning Disaster

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Credit Cards Burning a Hole in Your Pocket?

Last Christmas was a financial planning disaster for me. Since I’m still in school, I have very little credit ­- just one credit card with a $1,000 limit. But I had a ton of people on my list to shop for, including my four best friends, my parents, grandparents, and cousins. I went to the mall and bought everything on my list, not thinking about how much I was spending overall.

Soon after that trip to the mall, my mother and I got a call from my credit card company. They let me know that I had gone almost $500 over my limit! And I got charged about 12 overdraw fees on top of that. Ouch. I was working part-time as a grocery cashier, and I wasn’t making enough to be able to pay all of that off.

I had to borrow the money from my mom, since I knew paying the credit card balance off over time would cost me even more money in interest. My mom paid it, took my card away, and made me pay her back. She also made me start a $1,000 emergency fund. Before I could have the card back, I had to save at least $500. Now I make sure I know how much money I have.

Mint’s TakeAway

In last Thursday’s blog post, Ten Tips for Smarter Holiday Shopping, we outlined the steps this reader should have taken to avoid getting herself into this stressful situation:

  • Know what you have to spend. Setting a budget up front would have alerted her to the mismatch between her resources and her long “nice” list.
  • Reduce the length of your “must buy for” list and think outside the (gift wrapped) box. In our experience, parents and grandparents respond really well to gifts of time vs. material goods. And did all the cousins need gifts and/or separate gifts?
  • Shop for the best price online…and then buy online. Malls are well designed to get you to spend more money than you’d planned. By comparison shopping online, our reader might have been able to save money and avoid purchases above her budget thresholds. This year, we’re hoping she’ll try out some of the sites mentioned in our Five Sources for Savings and Rebates on the Web post.

Our reader was fortunate to have her Mom to pay off that credit card bill. And smart to follow her mother’s sound advice to build up a financial cushion against such financial planning disasters in the future.

A reminder (to ourselves) and all of our readers. This year, keep detailed records of what gifts you bought, for whom, and for how much. This will ensure that you don’t exceed your limits this year — and will help you plan a budget for next year.

Sign up for Mint.com today, set up your “Gifts” budget, and avoid some of those unhappy phone calls from credit card companies in January!

Train Wreck Tuesdays are a regular post of horrible financial mistakes. They are posted anonymously. Submit your story; if you’re selected, you get a Mint t-shirt. The best comment will also get one!