Holiday survival tips from 5 financial pros

For Ryan Decker, surviving the holiday shopping season is all about planning ahead. In fact, if he sees a gift for one of his two young sons in March, he'll go ahead and buy it, instead of rushing through his shopping list in December.

"It very much eases the burden," he says, making his December bills more manageable because he spreads holiday costs throughout the year.

Decker, a certified financial planner and director of the Center for Financial Literacy at North Central College in Naperville, says that without that kind of planning, the costs this time of year can quickly overwhelm budgets. "Inflation is eating away at our purchase power, so once you throw in the holiday season, it's a very stressful time."

Financial educators like Decker are often busy during the holiday shopping season, sharing tips with their audiences about how to avoid debt and save money while still being festive. We asked five of them how they personally navigate the season with their finances intact.

Make a list and stick to it

"I know I'm going to be setting a budget so I don't suffer after the holidays," says Christine Whelan, clinical professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She makes a list of those she needs to buy gifts for and assigns a spending cap for each person's gift.

Part of that strategy means limiting purchases to what she can comfortably afford out of savings instead of turning to credit card debt, Whelan says. "One of the ways we can use our limited resources to maximize our happiness is to pay now, rather than get socked with a credit card bill in February, which undermines our financial and emotional well-being."

Give (and receive) more creative gifts

Jerry Graham, Atlanta-based co-founder of the website, mentioned to his brother that he'd prefer a handmade gift this year. "He is so talented at art and woodworking, I told him I would appreciate a cutting board or something. A DIY gift is more memorable and comes from the heart," he says. It can often save money, too, and Graham knows his brother is on a budget.

Similarly, Felipe Arevalo, community outreach coordinator for the San Diego Financial Literacy Center, collects family photos throughout the year, then, as soon as he sees a promo code pop up, creates a photo calendar for family members. "I got the idea from my wife's uncle, but no one had done it in my family yet," he says. Not only does it save money, but it also helps family members stay in touch and see how his sons, ages 4 and 9, are growing.

The DIY strategy also applies to kids. Says Whelan: "I'm encouraging my kids to give coupons for in-kind gifts instead of things. Kids can give a card for walking the dog or other chores, cooking dinner for the family, even if it's just pasta or babysitting. It trains kids to think about other people rather than just buy their way out of a gift."

Think beyond the holiday season

The holiday season is the perfect time to make financial plans for the upcoming year, says Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "Right now, I'm putting together a rough outline of financial goals and priorities for 2023," he says. Focusing on things like travel plans or savings goals helps put holiday expenses in perspective. "You can tune out a lot of the advertising and emails related to the sales," he says, and instead zero in on what's most important to you.

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving financial goals is debt, which is easy to accrue during the holiday season. In fact, the 2022 Holiday Shopping Report from NerdWallet found that almost one-third of last year's holiday shoppers who used a credit card to buy gifts (31%) are still paying off their credit card balances.

Given the current economic climate and rising interest rates, McClary says, "It's probably a better idea than ever to avoid relying on loans and lines of credit to get through the holiday season, and to be as resourceful as possible about how you spend the money you have."

Start saving in January

Graham applies a similar plan-ahead approach as Decker, but with savings. "We put away money starting in January," he says. He and his wife Sara estimate costs for the holiday season based on the previous year's spending, then divide by 12 and set aside that amount in a dedicated savings account each month using automated transfers.

"By December, we have enough money to cover holiday spending, including decor, food and gifts," he says. That's been especially useful this year, as their incomes have fluctuated due to job changes. Tracking your expenses this year will let you begin this approach first thing in 2023.

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