Did you indulge in a few too many purchases this Christmas? Between sales for pre-Black Friday, Black Friday, early-bird Christmas, and the day after Christmas, it was almost hard not to overspend, unless you possess an iron frugal will.
We made it through the spending season mostly within budget, but there are a couple areas I’ll need to review in planning next year’s budget, and the corresponding contributions to our Christmas sinking funds.
In years past, we often blew through the budget and financed the remainder of our gift purchases on a credit card. Judging from the amount of swipes I saw in the check-out lines, I can assume we were not alone. Even in what most consider to be a fragile economy, there didn’t seem to be a shortage of shoppers willing to finance Christmas on their credit cards this year.
Assess the Damage
I’ve found the best cure for a holiday spending hangover is to address the damage head-on. No avoiding the bills until January 30th. No pretending it didn’t happen.
Between now and January 1st, figure out where you stand – how much damage was done. Did you blow through your budget and now find yourself low on cash? Did you rack up more credit card debt than you intended? Maybe a little of both?
Use Mint.com, or even a homemade spreadsheet, to take an updated inventory of your household finances. If you are able to transfer some money from savings, without jeopardizing your emergency fund, consider paying off your credit card debt before the New Year – debt free is a great way to start a new year!
If you don’t have enough cash around to pay off debt in one fell swoop, now is the time to devise a debt repayment plan for the coming year. How much will you have to pay each month to be debt free by April? Don’t let holiday debt hang around; it winds up becoming permanent debt, and two years down the road you’ll find yourself still paying interest on Christmas 2011 purchases. Not fun.
Update Your Plan for Next Year
Once you have addressed the damage done this year, consider updating your holiday spending plan next year. We underestimated our budget a bit for presents to extended family members and friends for which we wanted to give a gift. We also underestimated our “giving” budget, as we felt compelled to help beyond that for which had saved.
I don’t regret either decision, but I do want to build it into next year’s budget, because the earlier you start planning for a big expense, the easier it is to save for it.
Consider the following example:
Let’s assume next year’s Christmas shopping budget will be $600. If we start saving now that looks like $50 a month for the next year. If we wait until July, we’ll need to save twice that amount, $100 a month, to hit our goal. That’s a big difference. And it isn’t like Christmas sneaks up on us; it comes around every December 25th.
If you haven’t already created a separate savings account for these types of annual (or nearly as infrequent) expenditures, I highly recommend it. We have an online savings account that allows us to create a sort of subaccount where we save for infrequent expenses like car tag renewals, Christmas shopping, quarterly estimated self employment taxes, etc.
The sinking funds are funded by small contributions all year long, and when the expense is due, we simply transfer the money to our checking account and pay for it with cash. This has a way of smoothing out large budget blips, and reducing the likelihood of a spending hangover the next time around.
Before the New Year has us back in “holiday mode,” take a few days to reflect on this year’s holiday season. Hopefully, gifts will play but a small role in those memories, and instead you have happy memories of time spent with loved ones.