The holiday season is a time of cheer and warmth, but also of budgeting and financial stress. We sat down with finance expert Andrew Schrage from Money Crashers to see what sort of tips he had to offer to keep your wallet heavy and your heart light for the present and all the way into the new year.
Take a look at his answers to see how you can prepare for a financially healthier, and happier, 2015.
1) Many people overspend during the holidays, whether it’s on gifts, decorations, or events. What are the top three things you would recommend to avoid spending money on?
To reduce holiday expenses, don’t pay for gift wrap. Many retailers offer free gift wrapping with purchase – which saves both time and money. Another easy-to-avoid expense is shipping. Once you purchase a minimum amount, such as $50, you qualify for free shipping with a range of retailers. Target is offering free shipping on all online purchases through December 20. And it always pays to search for retailer coupon codes before you checkout. Last, there are so many events going on during the holidays there’s often no need to spend (much) on entertainment. Hop online to find free concerts, Christmas tree lightings, and the best neighborhoods to view holiday decorations and lights.
2) In your experience, do many people start saving for the holidays early on, or do they wait for too long and end up using credit cards?
Most don’t save and rely on credit cards instead. But there’s a simple fix to that. Open a separate bank account anytime before the holiday season and direct a small portion of each paycheck there. If you start at the beginning of the year and deposit only $20 from every bi-weekly check, you’ll have $480 for the holidays by December 1. But it’s not when you start saving that’s most important – what’s most important is that that you start.
3) After the holidays, sometimes even savvy shoppers and frugal spenders need to recover financially from the season. Do you have any tips on how to get your finances back in order after the holidays are over?
If you don’t already have one, get on a budget. Then, total your debts and with budget in-hand, create a sensible pay down plan. Speed up the process by eliminating a few personal purchases to free up funds until those debts are paid off. Purchases to eliminate or reduce include dinners out and other entertainment activities. If you have items gathering dust around your house – older electronics, clothes in good shape, knickknacks, toys – try selling them on Amazon, eBay, or Craigslist. Once you’ve paid off last year’s holiday debt, start setting aside funds for the following holiday season so it never happens again.
4) Many individuals will soon start to think about taxes and budgets for the 2015 year. Aside from keeping receipts, recording income, and tracking profits and losses, what are other ways that people can prepare to have a financially sound new year?
Instead of viewing your budget as a static document, search online for ways to reduce all monthly bills. Most strategies aren’t that complex – a simple change in habits can be all it takes to shave $50 off your electricity bill or grocery expenses. If you often get a large tax refund or owe a big bill in April, consider adjusting your withholding. Your goal should be to owe or receive as little money as possible. No one likes writing the government a big check, and if they write you one in the form of a refund, you’ve essentially provided the government an interest-free loan all year. Also, if you don’t itemize your taxes, try it. Tax preparation software makes this easy, and you might be leaving money on the table if you don’t.
5) Retailers see a huge increase in sales over the holiday season, but many online businesses based in technology, finance, and so on, usually see fewer sales during this time. What are some ways that they could increase sales until the new year?
One effective strategy is for retailers to send reminder emails to customers who filled their carts but failed to complete the purchase. Offering a free gift with purchase (such as an inexpensive software program) or end-of-year promotion can drive sales as well. Retailers should always announce their efforts on social media.
6) In your opinion, what are some simple and easy things that people can do to save money during the winter? Is there anything that they particularly overspend on, such as utilities, gas, etc.?
To save on home energy over the winter, schedule an in-home energy audit. Most energy providers offer them for free. A company rep will visit your house, inspect it, and provide a report detailing many ways you can save. A few simple strategies include closing vents and doors to rooms you don’t use, lowering your thermostat to 68 degrees (you can always throw on an extra sweater), and setting ceiling fans to rotate clockwise.
7) What was the most interesting financial trend that you saw this year, and what made it so intriguing?
Over the past several years, statistics have shown that Americans have been paying off debt accumulated during the recession. But recently, I’ve seen that many have taken on more debt this year. This is intriguing because it suggests that we’re forgetting lessons learned during the recession, such as reducing credit card debt and keeping it low.
8) Would you recommend online shopping over going to brick-and-mortar stores? Why so?
I personally prefer online shopping over brick and mortar stores most of the time. I save travel time and shop smart with coupon codes. Plus I know how to get free shipping. There are even ways to generate money from online purchases with sites such as Ebates.
9) What are some good, and reasonable, financial resolutions to start thinking about for 2015?
Commit to getting on a budget if you aren’t already, and eliminate high-interest credit card debt – with a little planning, neither is that hard. Getting on track with retirement savings is an essential resolution especially if you have little or nothing saved, as is starting or improving your emergency fund.
10) What are some frugal and simple ways that freelancers or small business owners can do to show their clients some appreciation over the holidays?
Sending out calendars, pens, or appointment books is an inexpensive way to show customer appreciation. Alternately, consider creating a short e-book on something relevant to your customer base.
11) What was the most valuable financial advice you ever received and how did it change your perspective?
Someone told me that the easiest way to avoid credit card debt is to follow one rule: If you can’t afford to pay off a purchase in full by the due date, then you simply can’t afford it.
12) What is your favorite thing about the holidays?
More than the gifts, food, decorations, and music, I love spending time with friends and family. Most of the folks in my life are busy, so we don’t have a lot of time to connect throughout the year. The winter holidays are the only time of year I get to see some of the people who mean the most to me.