If you're shelling out for holiday presents, hostess gifts, teacher thank yous and more, it can feel like 'tis the season to be a bit cash-strapped. But it doesn't have to be. We asked experts to share their strategies for gifting all your loved ones without draining your savings.
These days, Americans are parting with more of their money at holiday time than they did in the past. Shoppers spent $936.3 billion last November and December, according to the National Retail Federation — a 5.3% increase over the previous year. And while it can be easy to get swept up in the spirit of the season (particularly with the power to purchase at our literal fingertips), these tips from finance pros can help you tackle your gift list without taking on debt.
Setting a budget isn't exactly groundbreaking advice. And yet it's a step that's often overlooked, according to Arun Sundaram, a senior equity research analyst and vice president at CFRA Research, who says that failing to do so is the number-one reason buyers overspend.
To craft your plan, use the previous holiday season as your guide, taking note of any tips you handed out to babysitters or postal workers, travel costs and even gift wrap or decorations you have to buy, suggests Perry Wright, a senior behavioral researcher at Duke University's Common Cents Lab who studies financial decision-making. Since these costs, like the holidays, come around only once a year, "it's easy to lose track of the scope of it," he says.
Once you've allocated the funds (i.e. you plan to give $25 to your dog walker and spend $75 on a gift for mom), make sure you actually track that spending using a budgeting app or simply pen and paper. It's important to set aside time each week to ensure your spending is within budget, says Tayri Martinez-Orza, a counselor and quality assurance specialist at GreenPath Financial. That way, you can catch any instances of overspending, she adds, and "you may need to rethink the next purchase or return an item."
You can also use this time to research coupon codes for stores and sites you plan to shop from or to look into any hidden funds. ("You may already have gift wrap or unused gift cards in your wallet you can regift," says Martinez-Orza.)
Make a list of your card perks and check it twice — these can pay off when you're coming up with present ideas. For example, some cards offer rewards like gift cards for gas stations and restaurants that friends or family would be happy to receive for the holidays, says Martinez-Orza. "That way you're not coming out of pocket for those," she notes. And because some credit cards offer cashback rewards, you can offset some of your gift-list costs by making sure you're using any deals that would expire by the end of the year.
Part gift, part occasion, White Elephant and Secret Santa exchanges aren't just a guaranteed good time, notes Sundaram; they can also be a natural way to keep costs down if you talk with friends and family about setting a price limit. "It's not just you sticking to a budget. The entire group is sticking to a budget," he explains, so you're staying within your limits and "you don't feel bad that you're only spending X amount of dollars versus the family member maybe spending a little bit more."
Good times over actual goods is a mantra of Wright's, and the concept might make sense for you too. Research shows that planning a fun outing with your crew (say, a dinner out or a spa day) "promotes more moment-to-moment happiness than spending on having," he says. And there's another upside to chipping in on a group gift, beyond controlling costs — chances are, you're also bestowing your loved ones with a higher-quality present. "If I were to pass around small gifts to each of my friends," says Wright, "I would have gone out of pocket a lot more for a bunch of lower-value experiences."
Even if you're the sort who pays off your credit card balance each month, you might want to take a little extra precaution with holiday spending. Consider this option: "Take cash instead of a credit card when shopping," suggests Martinez-Orza. Then once you run out of that set amount, "you know that's it." Another alternative is to have your holiday savings funneled to a separate account. If you use the debit card associated with that account for all your gifts, you won't spend more than your holiday funds, she says. It's easier to control."
We've all got a thing we're pretty good at, and that thing — say, prodding a sourdough starter into a delicious loaf of bread or deftly arranging mementos into a shadowbox — can often work well as a gift.
Homemade items aren't only potential cost savers, but they're also proof that it truly is the thought (and work!) that counts. "People endow more value to objects that they have labored over," notes Wright. "So I have confidence that the giver will feel like they are giving a better gift," he explains, "and I can't help but believe that the recipient would perceive that added value."
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