5 Ways to Save this Holiday Without Being a Scrooge

It’s December 1st. Which means my decorations are up, my advent calendar is out, and I will be playing Hanson’s Snowed In on repeat for the rest of the month. In other words, I am ready for Christmas.

Hanson-Snowed_In

Don’t lie. If you were alive in 1998 you own this on cassette tape.

One thing that might not be so ready, however, is my wallet. No matter what holiday you celebrate or how long your “nice list” is, budgeting for the holiday season can be tricky for even the savviest of shoppers. Between gifts to buy, parties to attend, and meals to make it’s easy for your credit card balance to soar higher than your good holiday cheer.

So to prevent any post-holiday horror at how much you spent being merry, I’ve come up with a few tips on how you can be both festive and budget-friendly this year.

  • Give DIY gifts Are you crafty? Can you knit? Or draw? Or take great photographs? Then maybe you can make a gift for less than you could buy one. Pinterest has no shortage of easy DIY gift projects with step-by-step instructions for how to make them. What’s more, your gift will have more sentimental value than a store-bought item because you personalized it. Or if you’re not that confident in your crafting abilities, check out gifts on Etsy. They’re often creative, fun, and handmade but often less expensive than what you’d find at the mall.
  • Or give a helping hand Sometimes the things we do for others are more valuable than the things we buy them. If you’re handy, offer your services fixing small problems around your grandparents’ house. If you’re good with makeup, volunteer to beautify your sister before a big night out (Note to my sister – don’t worry. I will not go near your face. This idea is meant for people who can be trusted not to make you look like 1985 David Bowie from the movie Labyrinth). Your time and help can make a much better gift than a last minute purchase from the bargain bin, and it will save you money.
  • Track your spending ‘Tis the season for giving, but that doesn’t have to mean giving more than you have. Keep track of your holiday spending closely with a notebook or online tool. Determine ahead of time how much you plan to spend on each person on your list, on holiday parties, and on other holiday activities. Then make sure stick to the plan. Writing down what you spend will hold you accountable to yourself and your budget.
  • Create a new traditionIf your gift-giving budget is tight this year, chances are the same might be true for your friends and family. Get together and create new holiday traditions that save everyone a few dollars. Consider doing a Yankee Swap or Secret Santa instead of a traditional gift exchange. Or pool the money you would have spent as a group on gifts for each other to do something good for your community, like sending care packages to local troops overseas or hosting a holiday dinner at a nursing home. It’ll get you in the holiday spirit without hurting your wallet.
gifts 2

At our credit union we have an awesome Adopt-A-Family tradition we do every year where we collect gifts for a local family in need. It’s a great way to get in the spirit and do something good for others! 

  • Consider a Holiday LoanUnless you’re a total Scrooge, holiday expenses happen. If you haven’t saved up money throughout the year it can be tough to find the money to pay for your holiday needs. Your financial institution might be able to help! My credit union offers a Holiday Loan that lets members who qualify borrow up to $2,500 for 12 months at a low interest rate. It’s a way smarter option than putting all your purchases on your credit card because the interest rate is typically much lower. Plus with an installment loan making the minimum payments will guarantee that you pay back the debt in one year. With revolving debt like a credit card it could take much longer. Holiday Loans can be a great way to get some extra jingle without hurting your credit.

Hope these tips help you get in the spirit while still staying on budget. Happy Holidays!

Black Friday: Ready or Not, Here It Comes!

According to all of the ads on TV, Thanksgiving is no longer a holiday. It is now Black Friday Eve.  It has simply become the mark of the beginning of Christmas shopping season. If you are a big Black Friday fan and prefer to get your shopping done early, you might be okay with this.  But for me, all the hub-bub about Black Friday seems silly. Is anyone really saving that much money? Are the deals on toys, electronics, and clothes really worth getting up at 2 am and foraging your way through the crowds for? I have never been shopping on Black Friday and ever since I read a terribly sad article about a part-time worker at a Long Island Wal-Mart who was trampled to death by Black Friday shoppers back in 2008, I know I probably never will.

Despite the heavy advertising for the event, it seems that more and more Americans are on the same page.  A survey done buy NerdWallet.com revealed that only 12% of consumers will be doing the majority of their shopping on Black Friday this year.  Apparently most of us have decided we would rather enjoy our turkey in the company our families on Thanksgiving instead of gearing up for a shopping spree.

But there is an upside to early shopping.  The National Retail Federation says that Black Friday shoppers spend an average of $300 with about 30% savings. If you’re willing to put in the effort, Black Friday deals could really help you keep your holiday budget in check. So here are 3 important things to keep in mind if you will be braving the crowds next week:

1. PLAN AHEAD – Black Friday can get crazy.  Shopping on this day is not for the weak of heart. You need a battle plan.  Check ads in your local paper before hand and use websites like TGIBlackFriday.com and RetailMeNot.com to find out where the best deals are for the items on your list.  Those websites even provide mobile apps to help you navigate stores while you are on the move.  Make a plan ahead of time for what stores you will visit, what items you are purchasing, and a timeline of where you will go and when.  This will help you keep your cool in the stampede of shoppers and avoid unnecessary, impulse buys.

2. FOCUS ON ELECTRONICS – Forbes.com claims that the best deals on Black Friday are always for electronics.  Unlike toys and jewelry who’s prices tend to drop 2 weeks before Christmas, things like TVs, gaming consoles, and smart phones tend to be at their lowest price on Black Friday.  So if you have any digital gadgets on your shopping list, Black Friday is the day to get them.

3. FOLLOW THE 40% RULE – This shopping strategy can help you make sure you are actually getting items at a bargain price.  If an item is not 40% off or more, it’s not worth your time; it will probably be available somewhere else for less.  So if it’s not at least 40% off, don’t put it in your cart! The only exception to this rule? Stores that don’t typically have sales.  Some retailers are always discounting items (think Kohl’s or Walmart). But others, like Ray-Ban, Prada, or Patagonia, hardly ever discount merchandise.  If these retailers are advertising discounts on Black Friday take them, even if it’s not a full 40% off! Chances are you won’t see that bargain price again.

One important thing to know before you rush out in your pajamas in the early hours of the 29th – 70% of Black Friday door-busters are available online, according to Forbes.com.  This means you could stay home and get the same prices on your laptop that you would elbowing your way through the mobs in store. It’s definitely something to consider before you hit the road to shop.

With that in mind, here are 3 Cyber Monday Tips:

1. SHOP SECURE HTTPS:// – Only use familiar, well-known websites while online shopping.  Legitimate sites will have https:// (the “s” is for secure) in the URL. If the business doesn’t have a phone number or physical address listed on the site, it might not be a real business.  Scammers will create dummy websites and fake online ads, often promoting discounts on popular items, to trick shoppers into giving them account information, credit card numbers, and other personal info.  Be wary of any e-mails or online ads from unknown retailers that promote huge discounts on merchandise.  If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

2. REVIEW IT – When using a marketplace style website (sites that use multiple vendors like Amazon, E-bay, or Etsy) check the customer reviews before buying a product.  Buyers often rate the quality of the item they purchased, how quickly it was shipped, what shape it was in, how easy the vendor was to deal with, etc.  If the vendor seems trusted and reliable, go ahead and buy the item.  If the reviews are bad, chances are something will go wrong, so avoid those items no matter how big of a discount they’re offering.

3. KNOW THE RETURN POLICY – Before buying, check the website’s return policy. You want to know what your options are if the item doesn’t get to you on time, gets damaged during shipping, or the recipient doesn’t like it.  If it can’t be returned, you’ll want to know that before you pay.

Happy Thanksgiving and Best of Luck to all Black Friday Shoppers!

Seeing Santa in September: the Money-Saving Logic of Christmas Creep

If you’re a Christmas-enthusiast like myself, you are undoubtly familiar with the ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas.”  It’s an annual special the channel does where they play holiday movies 24/7 from December 1st all the way until Christmas Day.  Needless to say, ABC Family is the only channel I watch for that entire month; I love any Christmas movie, the hokier the better, and I am obsessed with the old Rankin/Bass films like Jack Frost and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I look forward to those movies marathons every year.  

Santa

But a week ago I saw a commercial for something called “the Countdown to Christmas” that starts on November 20th and I was a little confused.  Like me you’re probably thinking, isn’t the “25 Days of Christmas” already a countdown? Yes, yes it is.  And doesn’t starting it early and playing Christmas movies willy-nilly sort of make the real holiday season less magical?  It sure does.  To me, adding extra days to the “25 Days of Christmas” is like adding days to your Advent Calendar – it ruins the whole thing, it makes no sense, and you just don’t do itBut apparently ABC Family has decided that 25 days is not enough.  They will start the Christmas season before the rest of us sit down for Thanksgiving Dinner.

In recent years the Christmas-Come-Early schtick has become all too familiar to the American consumer.  We roll our eyes and change the channel when we see holiday commercials on TV during Halloween, but so many major retailers are advertising holidays deals in October now-a-days that none of these ads really take us by surprise.  In fact, the marketing phenomenon is so common that it has a name, Christmas Creep, which urbandictionary.com defines as a:

“Universally hated, market driven phenomenon that if left unchecked will eventually culminate in an uninterrupted decade of concatenated carol medleys, closely followed by a glorious moment of frantic arson destroying every Christmatastasized mall in America.”

This year, Kmart wins the award for earliest Christmas ad of the season; their commercial started running on September 9th, when most kids were still getting on the bus for their first day of school. The company aired a television ad featuring a gingerbread man sneaking up on a women while a voiceover stated, “Don’t let the holidays sneak up on you. Shop early with Kmart free layaway.”  You can check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNbHHwaXhYg

So why is Christmas coming earlier and earlier here in the U.S.?  Turns out ad execs don’t encourage Christmas Creep just because they’re little elves who like to spread holiday cheer; there less lofty reasons for adverstising early.  DailyFinance.com and financial columnist Jean Chatzky list a few:

1. No Presidential Election.  Last year, political attack ads and endless news cycles about the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney ruled the airwaves until early November.  This year, ad space is free for more cheerful messages about layaway programs and good deals on toys.

2. Late Thanksgiving/ Black Friday.  Thanksgiving is always on the 4th Thursday of the month, with Black Friday, the “official” start of the shopping season, kicking off the next day.  The 1st of November is on a Friday this year, which means Thanksgiving is a week later than usual (November 28th) AND Black Friday isn’t until the 29th. Instead of the usual 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year only has 4.

3. Super Early Chanukah.  This year the first night of the Jewish holiday falls on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (November 27th) so Jewish shoppers can’t wait for Black Friday to do their shopping. Though only 2% of Americans celebrate Chanukah, the early holiday is prompting some retailers to start advertising sooner, especially in areas like New York or Florida with a higher number of Jewish shoppers.

4. Low Spending Forecast. ShopperTrak predicts that holiday spending will rise this year, but only by about 2.4%.  In a still struggling economy, consumers are keeping a close eye on their holiday spending budgets.  Retailers are hoping to boost profits buy advertising early and promoting discounts.

Santa Carrying Shopping Bags

Knowing there’s reason behind the early season might not have you humming carols and smiling about seeing Santa in September, BUT you might be pleased to know that Christmas Creep is actually very good for your wallet.  Starting your holiday shopping early (maybe not in September but October or November) can help you stay within your budget and still get you everything on your Christmas list!  Here’s 5 reasons to shop early:

1.  Aggressive Ads = Great Deals. You might think that everything goes on sale December 26th, but there are actually a lot of great bargains to be found early in the shopping season.  Retailers want consumers to shop early and often, thus all the ads in September.  Early bird deals are often the most aggressive/ lowest prices of the year.

2. More Time. If you are my dad, you do all of you shopping Christmas Eve, and you are forced to buy whatever is in front of you.  If you need presents for the next morning, you’ll buy stuff no matter how high the price because it’s there.  Shopping early allows you to compare between other stores and online retailers for the best price on an item.  It also lets you be more picky; if you don’t see something you really like at one store you’ll have the time to browse elsewhere.  No time crunch means less impulse buying.

3. Layway & Holiday Loans. It turns out, Kmart was doing you a favor with that Christmas in September ad.  Using financially smart products like Kmart’s layaway program help you pay for the holiday without racking up the charges on high interest credit cards.  If the stores on your shopping route don’t offer layaway, consider applying for a holiday loan.  Many credit unions offer low rate loans specifically for holiday purchases.  Mine is offering a holiday loan right now at 7.99% (which is way better than my 19% credit card) for up to $2,500.  Making payments on a holiday loan will keep your monthly budget on track and help build your credit. If you haven’t been putting a little money away here and there throughout the year for holiday spending, a loan like this is a super smart way to finance your Christmas shopping.

4. Online Shopping. If you shop early online, a large number of retailers offer deals on shipping costs (some even ship for free!).  Even if there’s no shipping discount, you won’t have to worry about paying extra for next-day shipping or wonder if your items will get delivered before the 25th.  And finally, you’ll have time to return things that got ruined in the mail or that don’t look as nice in person as they did on your screen.

5. Spread It Out. I don’t know about you, but my budget doesn’t really accomodate dropping two grand in one day during a holiday shopping spree.  I have a little wiggle room, but most of my money goes towards rent, food, and those pesky student loans.  If I start shopping early, I don’t have to buy everything on my list all at once.  Spreading the cost out over 2 or 3 months worth of paychecks makes holiday shopping a lot more manageable because my budget can handle $50-75 every few weeks. While I could just put that money in a Christmas Savings account, I know I’m more likely to spend it on other things if I have access to it.  If I already bought the items, I can’t buy shoes or coffee with the funds instead.  Shopping a little at a time makes my wallet and everyone on my list have a merrier Christmas.

Here’s a few other good reads about holiday shopping:

http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/105-days-til-christmas-kmart-airs-holiday-ad/244064/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/kmart-christmas-ad_n_3916000.html

http://www.dailyfinance.com/on/why-christmas-is-coming-early-this-year/

http://www.littleones.com/family-life/7-smart-reasons-to-start-your-holiday-shopping-early/

Happy Shopping and Happy Holidays to You!