Thursday, December 17, 2009

8 tricks to not rack up card debt during the holidays

By Sally Herigstad

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006).

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I've been trying hard this year to work down my credit card debt, and I'm proud of the progress I've made. If I keep this up, I'll be debt free by next summer.

I'm worried about the holidays coming up, though. Every year, my list of people to buy for gets longer. If we exchange gifts one year, we have to the next -- and it can never be something noticeably cheaper than last year's gift. I even buy gifts just to stash in the closet, just so I have something to pull out when people drop by with surprise presents.

How can I keep from maxing out my credit cards this year without feeling like a Scrooge? -- Tiana

Answer for the expert

Dear Tiana,
Oh, the ever-expanding Christmas gift list! I know how that goes -- a fun little gift one year given with the best of intentions leads to decades of gift exchanging that turns into anything but fun. It's madness.

I got the most delightful e-mail from a friend this year. She said, "Let's not exchange gifts this year." She noted that our kids are older (at ages 28 and 30, they won't cry if I don't send a toy), and we both have new daughters-in-law to shop for.

So we've called a truce. I won't send to her and her kids, and she won't send to mine.

The gift list isn't the only thing that expands year after year, however. Christmas card lists get longer and longer. Once you're in a card database, you'll probably get their cheery missive from now until you die -- or after. (I've been guilty of addressing a card to the long-deceased before. Fortunately my husband caught it before it was mailed.)

Here are some ways you can enjoy the season without racking up a lot of credit card debt:

  1. Try my friend's tactic of calling a truce. If that's too formal, casually mention to friends that you're cutting back this year so nobody has to feel guilty about not buying so much.
  2. Watch out for personal spending. Malls are dangerous, especially with all those sales going on. Am I the only person who comes home from "Christmas shopping" with things I happened to find for me?
  3. Shop online. It's easier to compare prices, and you'll be less tempted by store displays of things you don't need. And the shipping will probably be offset by the gas you don't use.
  4. Scale back the card list and save on printing and postage. Do you even know everyone on your list? It's OK to delete a few names every year. If you have more than 50 or 60 addresses on your list, you can probably cut back.
  5. Make a few homemade gifts. Food is always a hit, and you don't have to worry about it gathering dust!
  6. Shop locally. Get to know your local craftspeople. They probably have online sites, too. It's nice to give something your relatives across the country can't buy at their chain store.
  7. Get the most from your holiday lights and decorations. More isn't better. Stringing a few lights won't make a noticeable difference on your electric bill, but lights you can see from space will. Estimate your holiday lighting bill with this Energy Cost Calculator.
  8. Celebrate locally. The community production of "The Nutcracker" is not only cheaper, but it's more personal and you can actually see the actors. The parking will probably be free, and you might even know someone in the cast.

I'll still get plenty of shopping in for the most important people on my list. I actually enjoy gift shopping, which I think is done best with a friend and plenty of latte stops. It's the most fun before the crowds get too big or panic sets in, while you can still take time to admire the decorations and critique the Christmas music together.

Enjoy your friends and family this season -- preferably in front of a fire with a cup of homemade hot chocolate. Sometimes agreeing not to give so many gifts is the best gift of all.