10 steps to a warm, wonderful, debt-free holiday

By Andrew Housser

The holiday season is in full swing, with shoppers hunting for bargains – and being tempted by new offers on a daily basis. In addition to gift-giving, people often find themselves loading up on groceries, travel, dining, entertaining and new clothing for the season’s events. Here are 10 ways to rein in the impulse to spend so that you can celebrate a holiday season you will not regret in January.

1. Use a list, and beware sneaky additions.
Start with a list of everyone you will be giving to and what you would like to give them. Tally the approximate cost. Then take an honest look at your budget. Remember to include gifts for teachers and tips for the mail carrier, hair stylist and other service providers. If you cannot afford everything on your list, scale back rather than go into debt. Be especially careful on purchases for yourself creeping into the allotted budget. The National Retail Federation reports that people expected to spend more than $130 on non-gift items for themselves and others this year.

2. Reconsider your gift-giving policy.
Some families fall into the trap of buying more and more as the family expands over time. It may be hard to bring up the subject, but changing a gift exchange tradition can be positive for all. You might consider replacing purchased gifts with participating in an activity together, or doing something for a charitable organization. Or suggest that family members draw names so each individual exchanges gifts with only one other person. Set a spending limit, and have participants write down a few gift suggestions on their name slip so purchases do not go unused or unappreciated.

3. Check your list twice – and return the excess.
If you over-purchased on Black Friday, it’s not too late to return excessive gifts to the store. Remind yourself that your loved ones would not enjoy those gifts so much if they knew they were causing financial problems.

4. Count the total cost when shopping online.
Do not forget the added charges of taxes and shipping when buying online. Use the Google “shopping” feature to compare total prices before purchasing. Seek out coupon codes and discounts online. And remember that even some retailers who do not normally offer free shipping participate in Free Shipping Day on Dec. 18.

5. Save by eating in this month.
On average, people in the United States spend about $219 a month on eating out. Packing food from home and making an extra effort to cook instead of going out could net an extra $150 this month, per person, to put toward holiday gifts and entertaining. Do not overlook alcohol’s cost, too.  Moderating your drinking habits can benefit your budget and your waistline.

6. Let your smartphone pay its way.
Free apps can help ensure you are getting the best price for an item. Snap a photo of a product, and Amazon Mobile will retrieve both the new and used Amazon price. You can even buy directly from your phone. Other apps, such as Red Laser, allow you to scan a barcode or search by product image to compare prices at thousands of stores, including online retailers. If you find a better price elsewhere, ask the store management to match it. Other apps, such as Mint, can help you stay on budget by tracking your purchases as you make them.

7. Say no to store credit cards.
The idea of saving 10 percent or more on the day’s purchases can be tempting. But if you do not repay that balance immediately, store credit cards often charge among the highest interest rates. Applying for any type of credit card also triggers an inquiry on your credit report, which can lower your credit score by as much as 30 points. Instead, seek out coupons and pay with cash or debit, or use one regular credit card carefully.

8. Stay home.
Holiday travel can be wonderful – and stressful. If you have not yet made travel plans, it may be too late to find bargains. For loved ones beyond driving distance, plan a round-robin Skype, Google Hangout or phone call where you speak to everyone. Take photos of special days and share them online. You can even create a private Facebook group to share large volumes of photos without bombarding your Facebook feed.

9. Stop looking at ads.
This time of year, email and mailboxes urge spending. Avoid temptation by unsubscribing from emails, creating filters to whisk messages into the trash folder, or deleting them unread. Toss junk mail and catalogs straight into the recycling bin. Call companies to be removed from mailing lists.

10. Find healthy outlets for stress.
The holidays – and winter in general – can increase stress. Instead of turning to eating or shopping, push yourself toward healthy alternatives. Exercise is a proven stress-buster. Apps or an old-fashioned timer can help you practice mind-calming meditation. Take a walk, call a friend, bond with a pet and get enough sleep.

With these steps, you can find your way to a happy, healthy, calm and, best of all, debt-free holiday season.