Hi friends. I want to take a break from talking about the “buying a home” financial advice and turn toward something that I know is on everyone’s mind: holiday finances!
The holidays take the cake when it comes to being the most difficult time of year to juggle it all. Wrapped up in all the excitement that comes with sharing gifts, time, and making memories with loved ones is a dollar amount. It’s also a tricky time because unlike other types of spending, that dollar amount is not something anyone should forego to “save money”.
We feel compelled to share our time and make investments in reminding others how much we love and appreciate them…and that’s a good thing. But the part that makes it tricky, as I was saying, is that so much emotion and noise is brought into decisions about spending that can cloud our ability to spend wisely and keep our finances in check.
Look no further for “noise” than holiday flyers and commercials telling you that the deals “won’t last long”, crowded department stores, holiday decorations that really get you in the mood to shop, conversations about gift giving and receiving, and maybe even your current level of #hangry. All of these things contribute to variability of judgment, which can be bad for your wallet.
Aside from just noise, there’s an emotional and relational effect on our spending as well. The urge to want to make people happy (small h) who make us Happy (big H) is one of the biggest reason we purchase things during the holidays. We want to invest in a tangible expression of our Happiness with something that reminds them of it and makes them happy. Big H-Happiness causes us to bring an emotional aspect into our decision-making, which can tip the scales so they are not in line with our bigger-picture financial goals because they just come in and hijack the decision in favor of whatever we’re feeling at the moment. I’m backing Harvard up on this one, guys.
All this got you feeling like you “can’t even right now…”?
Here’s where New Money Rules would like to offer some helpful advice. Part one is about the plan (budget), part deux is some advice on how to stick to the plan. So whether you’re looking to be the hostess who’s the mostess in control of her finances or just a party-crasher on a budget, this holiday advice is for you.
Part 1: Le budget
You can help yourself avoid some of the emotional and noise factors automatically by getting yourself a plan. By plan I mean budget. Now normally, I’m not one to push budgets on people because I don’t know that they work for everyone to manage all aspects of their finances. But when it comes to spending for the holidays, a budget can be your happy place in the midst of an otherwise overwhelming holiday season.
Without a plan (a budget), you’re setting yourself up for sub-optimal financial results. It’s easy to spend too much money by making purchases here and there, slowly checking people off your list, realizing you need to buy gifts for more people, going out and buying more gifts, not really sure of how much you’ve already spent in relationship to how much you can or should spend. Now I realize I probably just won the prize for ‘worst run-on sentence’ right there, but now you see how ‘lack of a holiday plan’ spirals downward in the same way that run-on sentence did.
The budget you create needs to be both complete and flexible. Complete means that you’ve accounted for all of the people and transactions that you’ll need to incur during the holiday season. Flexible refers to you being willing to adjust your budget as necessary; not in the sense that you agree with yourself to spend a little more, but that if you need to reallocate certain things within your budget, you will.
Many people travel outside of any gift-giving they might be doing so it’s a good place to start your budget, especially if you’re flying or driving a significant distance. Next include lodging if that’s applicable to you and any meals en route that you need to purchase.
Estimate the amount you’ll be spending on any food/groceries if you are hosting or contributing food or drink, as well as what on things like bottles of wine as host/hostess gifts. Since this is the “food” section, also include what you think you might spend eating out with your family and friends.
It’s go time. Figure out who’s exchanging what, and with whom, at each stop you’ll make this holiday season. Many people attend more than one Christmas, so it’s important to have a complete list of names. This maybe isn’t something you’ll put together in five minutes, either. I like to create a draft email or note and add people as I think of them over the course of a couple of weeks.
Pick an amount to spend on each person and stick to it. This is not putting a dollar amount on a relationship, it’s simply being realistic about your limited time, money and capacity to buy a holiday gift for someone. Going out and wandering around until you’ve found ‘the perfect gift’ only to realize it’s more than you can afford to spend is not a good feeling. Go in with a plan, and you’ll likely stick to your budget.
Maybe it’s been year since you’ve had to dig up a last-minute gift for a few people that it’s easy to overlook when you create your initial list:
- friends’ gift exchange
- administrative assistant
If you’re one of those people who wraps things in newspaper (or not at all), you can probably skip this one. But for everyone else, this is a gentle nudge reminding you the obscene amount of money that one can spend on wrapping paper, boxes, bows, and stickers, without really trying. Make sure to add in any shipping costs that you might incur here too.
While it’s easy to go crazy at Target and Home Goods when every decorative pillow and matching salt-and-pepper shaker set has a reindeer outline or cute polar bear, try to factor in as much as possible any decor purchases you usually make. While holiday decor is pointless to some, to you it might be a travesty not to have hire a crew of guys to put up your light display so big that it will also light up your electric bill. No judgment here.
Part 2: Keep it in check
Now that you’ve got a your very own holiday budget, it’s time to talk about what you can do to ensure you stay within it, no matter what this holiday season throws at you. The most important thing is to remember that any point, you can adjust. Think of your budget like a two-sided scale; if you need to add a little more to one expense, make sure you lessen your projected expense for something else so that your scale stays in balance. The idea is to always adjust *within* your budget, not above it.
Here are some areas within your budget where you could potentially move money around, should the need arise.
Travel & Lodging
This one is hard to get around because we generally all search for the lowest price for airfare and gas. Making plans early is the most surefire way to ensure a reasonable ticket price. If you didn’t buy your tickets ahead of time, or maybe your plans just changed, there are sites that cater to you! Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz all offer last-minute flight deals. Another option to ensure you get the best price is to opt-in to receiving alerts for airline fares daily so that you can know when they go up and down and plan your buying around that.
Lodging might offer some relief if you’re looking to cut your costs. Though it’s not always ideal to stay in a crowded relative’s house at Christmas, if you can endure it a night or two and avoid paying for a hotel, there’s a potential savings there. Or, instead of a hotel, maybe you opt to use AirBnB which might end up being cheaper and feel more like a home-away-from-home.
For the holiday dinner/party This is one area that nobody likes to skimp during the holidays, and you shouldn’t have to! The largest burden usually falls on the host to spend money on food and drink, which can be very costly. I’m here to tell you that even if the turkey is being carved at your house, you can still stay within your budget.
One way is to make it a group affair. One person shouldn’t be expected to whip everything up on Christmas day, ask those who you are hosting to bring one simple thing to help you out. People like to feel like they’re contributing to the festivities, so take them up on their offer when they ask if they can do anything to help out.
Another note: sticking to a simple menu and a signature cocktail is a good way to keep the creeping cost of hosting an event at bay. This way you can have your bubbly and drink it too! There are tons of ideas online; here are a few to help you get started:
By examining the “who”, “what”, and “why” of gift-buying, you can find ways to be flexible and still stay within what’s likely the biggest category of your budget. Keep sites like PriceGrabber in mind when comparing prices for the best items. Also for internet shopping, Honey is a browser extension that goes and finds coupons for the site you’re shopping on.
The “who” — The goal here is not to see how many people you can trim from your list, instead it’s to get an accurate picture of what you actually need to spend in the scheme of your holiday budget. Obvi nobody likes to be left off the list, especially if you have a tradition of exchanging gifts.
But for real, maybe there’s someone who, this year, helped you get through a tough time and you want to send them something to say “thank-you”; there’s no reason you can’t work that into your spending, just figure out where you can spend a little less.
Or maybe you need to work in gift-buying to your budget for a new set of in-laws…that’s doable if you are flexible in other areas of your budget like holding off exchanging gifts with your own significant other until a later date. Nothin’ wrong with that!
The “what” — When it comes down to it, something small and thoughtful is always much more appreciated than something generic and extravagent (chocolate storybook, anyone?).
Defining the rules of the “swap” has its advantages, too. Maybe you start a tradition of exchanging something small like a coffee mug or a pair of earrings (sorry, boys) with a friend. It makes shopping a breeze and eases the pressure to spend a lot of money. For more ideas for holiday shopping on a budget, check out this article with some unique online retailers that I’d certainly never heard of before a little research.
Last tip: homemade can be just as meaningful as store-bought. Taking time to bake or create something for someone is as much a symbol of how much you care as anything else.
The “why” — We spend loads of time shopping for gifts, returning gifts, and wrapping them. Time is as much an investment as money can be, so make sure you have an accurate estimate of how many hours your gift-giving will require.
Alright, now hopefully you won’t roll your eyes on account of my sappiness and skip to the next section…”why” we give should be more important than “what” we give. The holidays are like an annual reminder that gratitude is good for us. Giving gifts is fun and makes people feel special, but taking time to be mindful of the “why” behind it is straight-up good for your soul. Just expressing gratitude doesn’t require any gift-wrap, so keep that in mind, too as you make your “list”. Plus, gratitude is good for your health.
In my humble opinion, spending loads of money on stuff that just gets thrown away is crazy, but if you insist on making the effort…try wrapping things yourself and if at all possible, shop for next year’s wrapping paper at the end of the season. Also, do not underestimate the power of Amazon Prime when it comes to saving on shipping costs. Ship to your recipient’s address and make good use of the e-message function.
You’ve already heard my thoughts on the subject, so if you must spend money on decorations, like packaging, it will always be cheaper at the end of the season. Target can’t get those Rudolph inflatable displays off its’ shelves fast enough, so I kid you not that you can save 50-90% simply by waiting until January to do your decor shopping. Little late for that advice now, I realize, so if you must spend, just make sure it’s within your budget.
Tis the season
It can be hard to navigate your personal finances during the holidays, but I hope you find some of this advice relateable and/or helpful. One of the best money-saving tips for any time of the year is to HAVE A PLAN. To recap: I think having a budget is the best way to have a plan because it forces you to get more detailed than you normally would, exposing areas where you could potentially overspend if you are not careful. The second piece of advice I leave you with is once you have a plan, to get creative and get flexible. Leave your spending the same, but rebalance your spending forecasts accordingly. That way, nothing can interfere with you staying financially sound during this holiday season!
If you have other ideas for how to save or keep your budget financially fit during this eggnog and almond bark season, I would love to hear them. Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cheers to the season,
This was a very gif-y post. One more for the road.