It's remarkably easy to let your budget and your blood pressure go woefully out of control during the holidays. Just peruse this list: cards, gifts, goodies, stamps, travel, parties, tips, champagne, cookies, neighbors, the mailman, wrapping paper, Secret Santas, shipping... need I go on?
The money you spend on gifts is the least of it. It's the money spent on extras that really hurts. You can waste money by overspending to save time; by misusing plastic; by being disorganized, by getting into family bidding wars.
Or, you can be smart about managing the various costs of Christmas and the other winter holidays and move on, because we all know it's not supposed to be about the money anyway, right?
Here's are some solutions to your holiday financial woes.
-- You're worried about your credit. Roughly one in four Americans say they don't know when they'll pay off their holiday bills and many are still struggling with them when the next holiday season comes around. Don't do it! Even if you have to declare a year of no gifts/homemade gifts/regifted gifts or more, vow that you won't increase your debt this holiday season. Check out the Center for A New American Dream for other frugal holiday tips.
Don't go to the max on any of your cards, even if you expect to pay it off, says Loretta Abrams of HSBC-North America, because it can hurt your credit score. So can applying for too many cards at once, so don't open a slew of retailer-specific cards just because you'll save 10 percent or more on a specific day.
-- You don't know whom to tip, or how much. Tip anyone who makes your life better throughout the year. Make a list. Go to the bank, get a bunch of cash and fill all the thank you cards at once. Remember your trash collectors (call the firm to get names of your individual service people), the newspaper carrier, the cleaning person and more. Typically tip as much as a service costs -- one haircut for your hairdresser, a week's pay for your full-time babysitter, etc. Don't forget the guy who mows your lawn all summer but doesn't come around in winter.
-- You're divorced and trying to buy your kids' affection. Who doesn't fall into that trap? But even a warring mom and pop should try to negotiate the holiday gifts, says Linda Leitz, a financial adviser from Colorado Springs. When parents can agree on what they'll each spend and, ideally, give at least one gift jointly, kids have a good holiday, competitive tension is lessened between the divorced parents, and the kids know that both parents love them.
-- You've heard bad things about gift cards. They are easy and teens especially like them, but those issued by banks (that look like credit cards) often carry extra fees, says Ben Woolsey of CreditCards.com. In addition to the standard purchasing, shipping and handling costs, gift cards can assess fees for dormancy, card replacement, retrieving unused balances, service charges for ATM withdrawals, statement requests, and monthly administration, he says. Gift cards issued by individual retailers usually don't carry as many fees, but before you buy one find out if it has an expiration date, activation fee or limitations on its use. Done all that homework? Good, now buy the card. They are useful, easy and appreciated gifts.
-- You need to buy too many gifts. You're invited to office parties, neighborhood parties and office neighborhood parties. You've got lots of relatives and friends. You want to thank each host and hostess in an individualized way, but who's got that kind of time and money? Pick one generic gift -- bottle of wine, box of chocolates, candle and holder -- and buy it in bulk. Done. Or have a family baking day, make several batches of fudge (or cookies) and give that as your gift to everyone. Or go to charitygiftcertificates.org or tisbest.org and buy a gift card for everyone on your list at once. They can use it to donate to the charity they choose.
-- You think the holidays are too commercial and stressful. Shop for alternative charitable gifts for friends and family at changingthepresent.org or alternativegifts.org. Give experiences, like a day's adventure out, instead of toys. Leave out at least one complicated dish from the annual holiday meal, or make it a potluck.
-- You can't stop. It sounds obvious, but stop shopping when you're done with your gift list. It's often not the gifts that cost so much, but the damage you do by adding to the list once it's complete, or heading out for the -- horrors! -- after holiday sales. Just stay home and wallow in all the happy holiday memories.