The holidays can be pretty fraught, thanks to tons of familial and social pressure to create a picture-perfect setting (looking at you, Pinterest) plus a relentless onslaught of advertising.
The pressures are both complicated and formidable, which is why otherwise reasonable people lose their dang minds every November and December. We’re so anxious to do things the right way – the right décor, the right gifts, the right entertaining – that we can lose sight of our everyday values.
Ever taken on too many projects and wound up stressed and exhausted by Dec. 24? Or overbought wildly and then dreaded the arrival of the January credit card bills?
You’re not a bad person. You’re just human. Understanding what you’re up against will help you avoid seasonal mistakes that can wreck your budget and your peace of mind.
Mistake #1: Trying to Compete
At last year’s big family Christmas gathering, you gave your fiancee a pretty necklace and a book by her favorite author. At the same event, your brother gave his girlfriend a weekend ski getaway.
Boy, did you feel cheap. So this year you plan to buy your now-wife a car and really show up your brother.
No one wins in this game, because the recipients wind up overindulged and maybe developing a sense of entitlement. Meanwhile, the givers feel additional pressure as the bar gets raised higher each year. Oh, and those January credit card bills are murderous on your finances.
Don’t let other people – relatives, friends, marketing experts – decide what’s right for you to give. It’s not a competition.
Mistake #2: Seeking Perfection
“The perfect gift” is a phrase you’ll hear and read a lot at this time of year. A common inference: “If I give the right gift, it shows how much I love the recipient.”
And the corollary inference: “If I don’t give the right gift, I’ll be a failure.”
That’s not how any of this works. Give gifts if it makes you happy to do so, and put some thought and care into the giving (e.g., don’t give a steakhouse gift card to a vegan). But don’t put pressure on yourself to be “perfect.”
Mistake #3: Succumbing to Marketing Ploys
My main trigger is music. When I hear stores playing the carols I once sang in the junior choir, I am suffused with nostalgia and want to buy another round of gifts for everyone I know. It’s scary how quickly this Ghost of Christmas Past could wreck the budget. I’ve learned to stick to my list and get the heck out of the store.
Maybe for you it’s television commercials or online ads about “the perfect gift” that lead directly to temptation. Identify your weak spots and deal with them. Make a list of your own and stick to it. Bring along a shopping buddy to talk you down. Wear headphones blasting Brahms or Black Sabbath to drown out a store’s holiday music.
Whatever your particular weak spot, know that it can be conquered. And if you give in and buy too much? Return some of it, right away.
Mistake #4: Being Cyber-Careless
You’re at the coffee shop or at a fast-food place when your phone or laptop displays a flash sale. “Just this once” you figure it will be okay to enter your credit card number on a shared public network, so you can snag a screamin’ online deal that’ll stretch your holiday giving budget.
Or maybe you caught a glimpse of the store clerk doing something a little off with your card (e.g., running it twice), but you were on the phone apologizing to the babysitter for running late and felt too harried to confront the employee. And on the way home you realized you didn’t have enough to pay the sitter, so you used the ATM outside the convenience store to get some quick cash.
Credit card fraud is a big deal all year long, but the holidays really kick it up a notch. We’re distracted, we’re super-busy, and we’re buying a lot of stuff online. According to Experian, holiday fraud is most likely to happen on Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 21 (the cutoff date for express shipments), or Christmas Eve.
Being careful about credit is a good idea year-round, but be ultra-vigilant in November and December. For more on this topic, see “Protecting Against Credit Card Fraud.”
Mistake #5: Succumbing to the ‘Easy’ Buy
One-click sales and saved credit card info makes it feel less painful when we overdo it for the holidays. Behavioral science expert Jeff Kreisler says such options make us “less aware” of our spending.
Would you be quite so blasé about purchasing that expensive bauble or well-advertised toy if you had to take a series of $20 bills out of your wallet? Maybe. But maybe not.
“We should be skeptical of the latest technologies, especially those that are designed to demand less of our attention and make it easier for us to part with our money,” Kreisler says.
One workaround is not to complete the online shopping trip. Revisit the virtual cart in a couple of days and decide whether you really should buy. The retailer may send you a discount code during that time, but don’t be swayed: If you can’t afford a purchase, then it’s no bargain. And if you decide you can swing the purchase, any discount will make the deal a little sweeter.
Mistake #6: Ignoring Opportunity Cost
The National Retail Federation predicts the average U.S. shopper will spend a little over $1,007 on gifts, special foods, and other items during the 2018 holiday season. Even if you don’t spend that much, think about the long-term impact of the money you do spend (or overspend) — and what you could do with the money you don’t.
Let’s say you ordinarily spend the average amount, but instead keep the tab at a much more modest $500 this year. Next, think of that extra $507: What could it do for you in some other capacity? For example, you could pay extra on a student loan, shore up your emergency fund, purchase the start-up equipment needed for a money-making side hustle, or add those five Benjamins to your retirement fund.
Finally, think about a decade’s worth of profligacy versus restraint. Assuming you don’t go over budget by the same amount every year, that’s $5,000. How much closer to your long-term financial goals will you be once you learn to rein in your impulses?
Mistake #7: Treating Holiday Spending Differently
Throughout the year, price jumps on essentials like groceries and gasoline make you really nervous. But come the holidays, the logic center of your brain may shut down.
For 11 months it’s painful to come up with an extra $100 for a new tire or a medical co-pay, yet in December you decide that a $99.99 Harry Potter Lego set is a must-have.
Spending is spending. It’s the same $100 whether it’s going toward heating oil or toys. If you struggle to balance the books all year long, it’s not OK to overbuy for the holidays.
Try this exercise: Divide that $99.99 (plus tax and shipping, if applicable) by your current hourly salary. You’re looking at just how long you had to work to pay for that ugly Christmas sweater or the plush Christmas tree that sings “Jingle Bells.”
Hours of your time traded for stuff that will be used rarely, if at all. Ho-ho-no!
Mistake #8: Taking on Too Much
If you’ve got two kids in the community theater production of “A Christmas Carol” and work full-time and throw a huge mid-December open house and have to drive for five hours to be with your folks for Christmas, maybe this isn’t the right year to declare it an “all gifts will be homemade!” holiday.
Similarly, if you work full-time and are in a men’s chorus that performs half a dozen holiday concerts and volunteer for Toys For Tots, perhaps you could say, “Sorry, not this year,” to additional entreaties for your time. Just because someone asks doesn’t mean you have to say “yes.”
Too many activities can lead to financial stress, e.g., lots of additional miles on your car and more takeout because you’re too overscheduled to cook. The constant busy-ness can also take its toll on your peace of mind, and on your own enjoyment of the season.
When you take on too much, something’s got to give – and it might be you.
Mistake #9: Losing Sight of Value
Somehow we take the major retailer’s word for it that the Lego set really is worth a hundred bucks. That is, we let someone else decide the value for us.
Instead, why not look around for the best prices with a site like PriceGrabber.com or NexTag.com? And even then, we’re the ones who should decide what we buy — and if a particular item’s worth those extra hours at work.
Resist following the crowd. It’s up to you to decide whether to buy a gag gift or wear an ugly Christmas sweater vs. blindly following the crowd.
Mistake #10: Automatically Buying Retail
If you do decide to wear that ugly Christmas sweater, your friendly neighborhood thrift shop can probably hook you up. Check a few thrift shops. Gag gifts abound there, too.
But so do some pretty great regular presents, too. I particularly enjoy browsing the books section, which bulges both with bestsellers and classics alike.
(Pro tip: Some secondhand shops have sales every so often, or even every week. Find out when the next discount days take place.)
Mistake #11: Not Learning From the Past
Last year you went into debt for the holidays. Serious sacrifice plus a part-time gig delivering pizzas helped you pay it all off by the end of April.
Not exactly a happy ending. Again, think of the opportunity cost of the interest paid and the fact that the extra money you earned went toward unnecessary debt rather than future goals.
Trusting past decisions means we aren’t learning from our mistakes, which means we’re doomed to repeat them.
Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”
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