(NEW YORK) — From Black Friday to Cyber Monday to gift guides to discount-promoting emails to plain old shopping malls, there are countless ways to spend money this holiday season.
Americans are expected to spend an average $1,007 over the holidays, with young adults being the most likely to spend more than last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
“The most common mistake people make is not planning in advance,” said Tia Chambers, an Indianapolis-based certified financial education instructor who blogs at Financially Fit & Fab. “Not making a plan before shopping online or in the store leads to overspending.”
The good news for those whose holiday shopping is still underway is that there are only three things you need to do to avoid a spending hangover come January, experts say.
Avoiding that spending hangover will reap benefits for both your checkbook and your mind.
“It provides less stress for you so you’re not spending the holidays worried about bills coming,” said Chambers. “And you’ll live with less regret.”
1. Start with a budget
Before stepping into any store or going online, sit down and make a list of the people you plan to buy gifts for and the total amount of money you are able to spend, advise both Chambers and Stefanie O’Connell, an author and millennial personal finance expert.
“Start with a number and then break it down by the number of people you’re buying for,” said O’Connell. “The budget dictates your spending, rather than the other way around.”
When deciding how much to budget for the holiday season, think of your goals, with the ultimate goal being not to deplete your savings for one holiday, according to O’Connell.
Don’t forget also that your budget includes not just gifts but expenses that pop up over the holiday season like travel, food and parties.
“If you have a major thing coming up like a wedding or you want to buy a new car or a new house next year, then you’re probably going to want to spend less over the holidays,” O’Connell said. “Remember that the holidays are a discretionary expense. There is nothing necessary about giving gifts.”
If you are already in debt, O’Connell recommends thinking of gift-giving as giving yourself the gift of paying down debt. If you are able to travel to visit family or friends, consider your presence as the present, she explained.
“When we give to others at the expense of our financial health, we’re really just becoming possibly a burden to them,” she said. “We may have to ask later for help from the people we’ve over-gifted.”
In order to stick to a holiday budget, O’Connell suggests withdrawing the amount of money you budgeted in cash and using only that money for your holiday spending. When it is gone, you have reached your holiday limit.
Free apps like Mint can also help with budgeting by keeping you accountable in the moment, suggested O’Connell. You can set your budget on the app and reference it on your smartphone while you’re in the store or online.
2. Take advantage of deals and discounts
Whether your holiday budget is large or small, taking advantage of deals from both retailers and discount sites like Groupon.com can help keep your spending in check.
O’Connell calls herself the “queen of gifting Groupons,” which allows you to gift an experience like a massage or a product at a discounted price.
O’Connell also recommends making use of sites like EBates.com that allow you to find coupons and get cash back for purchases.
Another tool, Honey, a downloadable browser extension, will automatically add available discounts to items in your shopping cart when shopping online.
When shopping in a brick and mortar store, Chambers recommends downloading the QR scan app on your phone. Scan an item’s barcode in the app and the app will tell you the price of the item in other stores so you can compare and negotiate.
If you already have a credit card, research the card’s rewards (like cash back on purchases) and maximize them during your holiday shopping, advises O’Connell.
A common mistake she warns against is taking advantage of discounts offered at check out for opening a store credit card.
“If you’re opening a card just because someone asked you at checkout then you probably haven’t been able to read the fine print and you’re taking on more credit than is good for your profile,” O’Connell said. “They generally have the worse terms and conditions of any cards out there.”
3. Give gifts for free
The spirit of the holiday season does not include buying a physical item for everyone on your gift list.
Use your own skill set as a gift for family and friends. If you’re a graphic designer, you can give the gift of helping someone put together a logo or a website, for example. Or it can be as simple as gifting your grandmother 30 minutes of time with her each week, or helping your mom organize the family photos, or helping a friend or family member clean out their closet, or gifting your spouse the promise of freshly made coffee each morning.
O’Connell also recommends encouraging your family, friends and/or coworkers to do a community service project together instead of exchanging gifts.
“Suggest it by saying, ‘Rather than a gift exchange, why don’t we all spending time giving back to the community this way,'” she said. “You would be surprised how if you present it an alternative, people are excited by it and it really resonates with people in a way that isn’t centered around consumerism.”
In order to make your holiday spending easier next year, O’Connell recommends opening a “giving account” and putting two percent of your paycheck in it each month.
The money in the account can be used for everything from birthday to wedding gifts throughout the year and then for the holidays as the year ends.
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