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!

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Don’t Be a Scrooge – Charitable Holiday Giving on a Budget

Every year our credit union “adopts” a local family for Christmas. They give us their wish list and we take care of the rest. Staff and members buy gifts off the list and bring them back to the office so we can wrap and deliver them to the family. This year our anonymous family has a 4 year-old daughter and I have honestly NEVER had more fun Christmas shopping than when I went out to buy a gift for her. I spent way too much time the kid’s section of Target selecting just the right outfit. I don’t have a lot of extra cash this time of year so I had to limit myself to just 2 items. After much debating here are the adorable clothes I finally picked:

If these are not the most adorable clothes you have ever seen, you must not have a soul.

If only it were appropriate for my clothes to have this much tulle and glitter . . .

Why was shopping for her so much more fun than for everyone else on my list? The easy answer is that I have always had a soft spot for clothes that are fashionable but tiny. They’re just so darn cute. But I think a better answer might be that it’s more fun to shop for someone when you are not obligated to do it. No one makes me take an Adopt-A-Family ornament. I do it because it’s fun. I do it because it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling of doing something good for someone else. And I do it because I want every kid to have Christmas memories that are just as great as mine are. I am unbelievably lucky to come from a family where piles of presents, warm yummy meals, and loved ones gathering together were a given every year. My parents never worried about being able to afford the Christmas they wanted to give my sister and I. Not every family has that luxury. My small purchase is just one step in helping a family have a Christmas to remember. And even though I won’t get to see them open up their presents on the 25th, it’s enough just knowing that they will get to is enough.

Hopefully that wasn’t too sappy for you, but I think we all want to give a little something back to our communities this time of year. Like me, your wallet might not be bottomless this holiday season. So here are a few ideas on how you can spread some holiday cheer without overspending:

1. Donate Within Your Budget – You don’t have to make a Bill Gates sized donation to make a difference to a charity; small donations are just as valuable. According to the Dunkin’ Donuts website, they serve 1.7 billion cups of coffee in a year. That’s 4.6 million cups a day. A large coffee costs about $2 which isn’t a lot, right? We could all scrounge up $2, even if you had to use some change. But if all 4.6 million people donated their $2 coffee budget to a charity for one day you could raise $9.2 million. That’s HUGE! So this holiday season, think about making a small donation of just $5 or $10 to a charity that’s important to you; it will make both your wallet and your heart happy.

2. Add Up Your Spare Change – Have spare change laying around at home? Why not roll it or bring it in to a coin machine so you can exchange it for bills. Then donate that money to charity. You won’t miss it because you weren’t using it anyways. Ask your financial institution if they have coin wrappers or a coin machine you can use.

3. Wrap Gifts for Someone – I know most people hate it, but I LOVE to wrap presents. If you’re on a tight budget and donating money is out of your reach this year, this is a 100% FREE way you can lend a helping hand. Tell a family, friend, or neighbor that you’ll be their wrapping elf this year – with all of the other chores to do during the holidays, I bet they’ll truly appreciate the help!

4. Volunteer for an Hour – Serve lunch at a soup kitchen. Participate in a blood drive. Help out at your local animal shelter. Whatever you choose to do, your time as a volunteer is a priceless gift.  There are so many great organizations out there who could use an extra hand. You might not be able to donate money, but your time is just as valuable check out http://www.volunteermatch.org/ for volunteer opportunities in your area.

5. Donate Old Clothes, Coats, Hats, Mittens, Etc. – Here in the great old state of Maine, it is currently 19 degrees outside. Imagine if you didn’t have a good winter coat to wrap up in? Clean out your closet for old winter gear you no longer use and donate it your local Good Will or Coats for Kids http://www.coats-for-kids.org/ .

I hope you and your family have a very Happy Holiday and the Best New Year! – Kelsey

Mark-A-Thon

WCYY DJ Mark Curdo, me, and co-worker extraordinaire Mel in the studio.

WCYY DJ Mark Curdo, me, and co-worker extraordinaire Mel in the studio.

Yesterday, I became famous. At least my voice did when got my 15 minutes of radio fame. I’ve always known I had a face for radio . . . 🙂

It all started when my co-worker Mel and I were lucky enough to be invited to visit the 94.3FM WCYY studio in Portland to be a part of the 6th Annual Mark-A-Thon. Local DJ Mark Curdo stays on the air for 102 hours straight every year to raise money for the Center for Grieving Children. How does he stay awake for that long? I have no idea! If I was him I would have been curled up in a corner asleep by the time we got there at the end of Day2. But I think working for such a great cause was keeping him peppy and awake. Or maybe it was Red Bull.

Anyways, the Center for Grieving Children is a great organization working in Southern Maine to offer counseling services to children and families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. They have 2 locations, one in Portland and one in Sanford, and over the last 25 years have been able to serve over 66,000 Maine children, teens, and families. The best part? The services offered by the center are 100% FREE. They describe their mission as “to provide loving support that encourages the safe expression of grief and loss and fosters each individuals resilience and emotional well-being” (from their website http://www.cgcmaine.org). It is a truly invaluable service to the kids and families who go there.

The deal with the Mark-A-Thon is that all week long while Mark is on the air you can call in, make a donation to the Center for Grieving Children, and he’ll play any song you want. CYY is normally an alternative rock station, but during this event he will literally play any song from any genre by any artist. We requested Jimmy Buffett which we discovered is on Mark’s all-time never ever play list and he even played that for us. Not without making fun of us a little, but he played it. This year during the Mark-A-Thon he played everything from Taylor Swift to Frank Sinatra to Jay Z to N SYNC. It’s such a cool event which pulls people from all different backgrounds and musical tastes together for a worthy cause.

This morning on the Mark-A-Thon, I heard a clip of a little boy who called in to donate all of his Christmas money to the Center for Grieving Children. Instead of getting presents this year, he asked his parents to donate the money they would have spent on him to this cause.  He said he is lucky to have his loved ones around to give him gifts and that he wanted to do something for other kids who might have lost the loved one who gave them presents. I tried not to cry when I heard this adorable child because I was driving, but that is too precious! With all of the Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Shop Til You Drop commercialized buzz this time of year, it’s so easy to forget that this is what the holiday season is really about – giving and sharing with the people we care about. There’s nothing that gives you that warm, fuzzy Christmas feeling like donating to a good cause or helping out a neighbor.

Mark 6 Web Flyer

Although we are more than half-way through the 102 hours of this year’s Mark-A-Thon, there’s still time to donate! The Mark-A-Thon will run until 5pm tomorrow, Friday December 6th. Visit https://www.gifttool.com/donations/Donate?ID=1226&AID=3018 and if you pledge a donation to the center, Mark will play any song you want to hear. Any artist. Any genre. Even a song for you Parrotheads:)

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!

Short & Sweet Credit Card Advice

Want to know the single best piece of financial advice I’ve ever been given?

If you wouldn’t go to a bank or credit union and ask for a loan to buy it, DON’T put it on your credit card.

creditcards

I got this tip way back at the beginning of my financial career (like 2 years ago) at a Financial Literacy Conference.  It came from Dr. Barbara O’Neill a member of the New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education. She’s a very smart lady.

The trouble with credit cards is, they don’t feel like real money. It’s not cash you have to hand to the cashier.  It’s not a debit card that affects your checking account balance right away.  It’s so easy to impulse buy or overshop with a credit card because payment is delayed.  And all of the sudden 1 or 2 small purchases turn into 20 and it all adds up to a big balance.  Worst of all, since you haven’t depleted your checking account or the cash in your wallet, you probably feel like you still have money to spend even though you’ve already burned through your monthly budget.

Another problem with credit cards? Interest rates are crazy high (average in the U.S. is 14.95% APR according to CreditCard.com). Why would you want to pay 14% interest on a purchase you could have paid for at 0% interest with cash or a debit card? You wouldn’t! You’re paying more for items in the long run just to delay payment for a few weeks or months. I’m sure you’ve been told before to pay-off your credit card balance in full every month, but how many of us actually do that? According to NerdWallet.com the average U.S. household in 2013 has $7,050 in credit card debt, which makes me think not too many of us are good at ante-ing up each month to pay off our credit card balance.

If you follow Barbara’s rule, however, you are less likely to drive up the balance of your credit cards unintentionally.  Before you swipe your credit card, think “Would I ask my bank for a loan to make this purchase?”  If the answer is “NO WAY” then pay with cash or debit instead.  For example, you wouldn’t walk into a branch and ask for a loan to pay for a pizza, would you? If you were brave enough to do it I can almost guarantee that you will not be approved (unless that particular loan officer has a great sense of humor).

If you reserve your credit card for big purchases that you could ask for a loan for, like car repairs or furniture, you will be a much more cautious spender. It’s likely you’ll have done some research into what you want to buy, where to get the best price, and whether or not you really need it. If it’s truly something you might not have immediate funds ready to purchase, your credit card can help you get it.  If you can pay for it out of your regular budget, do that instead.  No more racking up your balance on nail polish or new going-out clothes from Forever 21 (not that I’ve ever done that . . . ).

With the holidays, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday quickly approaching it’s more important than ever to remember this rule. All the knick-knacks, decorations, gifts, and food that come with the holiday can really put a dent in your wallet.  But putting all of those expenses on your credit card might not be the best solution.  Set a limit to your holiday spending that fits your current budget, even if these means cutting back a little. Start putting a little money away each week (start today!) so you have money saved specifically for holiday shopping.  And last but not least, see if your financial institution offers a Holiday Loan; the rates would likely be a lot less than your credit card and making the payments will improve your credit.

Leaving your credit card at home this holiday season might make your 2014 a little more merry and a lot brighter!

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!