Take these 4 steps now to keep your holiday spending in check

Don’t let unanticipated costs blow your holiday budget — prepare for these expenses now.
Where did you spend last year? Look back at last year’s online bank or credit card statements to see what you bought — those same things may trip you up this year.
Where did you spend last year? Look back at last year’s online bank or credit card statements to see what you bought — those same things may trip you up this year.Paul Bradbury / Caiaimage/Getty Images
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By Stephanie Thurrott

Every year I think I plan for my holiday expenses — I know how much my farmers’ market Thanksgiving turkey will cost (a lot), I estimate what I’ll spend for gifts for my family and friends, and I stock up on stamps from Costco for my holiday cards.

But in January, the credit card bill comes in, and somehow a bunch of unexpected expenses add up.

I’m not the only one who finds holiday expenses tough to manage. According to NerdWallet’s 2019 Holiday Travel Report, one in 12 Americans who put 2018 holiday travel expenses on a credit card are still paying for them.

This year I’m determined to stay a step ahead of my holiday expenses. Financial expert Jennifer Streaks says, “The best way to take care of unexpected expenses like tips for the holidays is to try to plan in advance.”

These four steps will help you — and me — get control of our holiday finances.

Step 1: Identify those holiday expenses you’re likely to overlook

Look back at last year. “If you have a record of last year’s purchases for October through December, such as online bank or credit card statements, take a quick look at them to see the kinds of things you bought last year. This can help pinpoint possible expenses for this year,” says Jackie Beck, a debt reduction expert who created the app Pay Off Debt.

You can also look through last year’s calendar to see the activities and events, and make your best guess as to how much you might have spent. And look forward to see what’s already on your schedule for this holiday season.

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Step 2: Think through those holiday expenses that can sneak up on you

You’re probably hitting at least some of these expenses this holiday season, so build them into your plan:

  • Tips. From the people who haul away your trash to the mechanic who services your car to the manicurist who jazzes up your nails for parties, you likely tip the people who help you throughout the year.
  • Group gifts. You might find you need to bring a book to your book club, a Secret Santa gift to your office, or extra treats to hand out to your dog-park friends.
  • Extra presents. You may keep gifts like candles or holiday treats on hand just in case you need them.
  • Tickets. If you’re planning to see the Nutcracker, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or a holiday light exhibit, you need to factor in those costs.
  • Kids’ costs. Kids generally come with lots of little gifting needs — teachers, counselors, therapists, coaches, and music teachers all make a difference in your child’s life, and you want to acknowledge that. But even a few dollars per person, times all those people, times the number of children you have, can add up.
  • Food. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving or a holiday party or dinner you’ve probably planned for the expense. (You did that, right?) Even if you’re not hosting, you’ll probably bring an appetizer, dessert, drink, or small gift.
  • Travel. You have your big travel expenses accounted for — flights, tickets, gas — but have you factored in the little stuff? You might stop for lunch and snacks to break up a long drive, or grab a meal at an airport during a layover. You might need to pay for parking or tolls.
  • Clothing. You and your family might want new outfits for your holiday photos, gatherings or religious services.
  • Lights, decorations, wrapping paper and gift tags. You may need to replace lights, add to your décor and supplies, or buy a tree or wreath.
  • Holiday cards, postage, and photographer’s fees. The expenses of snail-mail greeting cards can add up.
  • Religious or charitable donations. Don’t forget to account for your end-of-year contributions.

Step 3: Put together a plan for covering these expenses

“Begin budgeting for them or paying for a few items at a time now,” Beck says. Estimate your expenses in each of these categories, total them up, and divide by the number of weeks you’ll have to pay for them. Then, each week, set aside that money or buy something from your list — shop around for affordable clothing, prepay your EZ Pass account, or stock up on nonperishable food.

“You may be able to find some of the décor items you want free, if you’re part of a local Buy Nothing Project group,” Beck says. You can also look to local thrift stores and sites and apps like Craigslist, Letgo, Facebook Marketplace, and ThredUp for bargains on décor and clothing. By knowing these expenses are coming, you can also watch for sales and look for ways to trim costs. “For example, if you have a tradition of going out to eat around the holidays, you may be able to get discounted gift cards at Costco to your preferred restaurant,” Beck says.

And consider handmade gifts to cut your expenses. “There is nothing wrong with making a holiday gift for your service providers. A cake, a scarf or even a gift certificate can take the place of a tip.” Streaks says.

Plus, you don’t have to do everything. “Keep in mind, too, that saying ‘no’ is an option in many cases,” Beck says. “Most people will never notice if you don’t participate in some things, or cut back.”

Streaks says planning now is key: “Don’t wait until the end of November and December to start thinking about these expenses. Include them in your holiday shopping list so that you are not caught off guard.”

Step 4: Plan ahead for holiday season 2020

Track your expenses for this year and make a note to yourself so you can look back at them next year.

And look for opportunities to spend less. “Once this year’s holidays are over, getting a jumpstart on next year’s expenses will help as well. For example, you could shop the clearance sales in January for nonperishable holiday items that are on deep discount. Things like cards, wrapping paper, and decor are likely to be as much as 90% off,” Beck says.

Leave a note to yourself of what you have on hand, so you don’t make duplicate purchases. Future you will thank you.

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