Holiday joy without the debt hangover

7 ways to keep spending in check this season

By Lela Davidson

Nothing supports a joyous holiday season like the peace that comes from knowing you won’t face the effects of over-spending come January. While good old-fashioned saving and planning ahead are still the best way to manage your holiday finances, that doesn’t always happen. There are plenty of things you can do right now to keep holiday expenditures under control. Carrie Rocha founder of and author of Pocket Your Dollars (January 2013, Bethany House) says spending motivations are multi-faceted, drawing from physiological, emotional, social and spiritual components. That doesn’t mean we are powerless against them.

1 Resist the high of the swipe
Love to shop? Blame it on chemistry. There are drug-like compounds at work during the holidays, and we’re not talking eggnog. “Physiologically, buying something new makes us feel good,” says Rocha. “The body releases a chemical called dopamine when we surround ourselves with new things and when we make purchases, especially purchases on plastic (credit or debit).” Rocha says generosity creates feel-good emotions, too. “It’s like a dopamine double whammy that creates a short-term high and some very impulsive decisions.” Be strong.

2 Pack light
If your holiday plans include visiting far-flung family, take care not to incur extra costs associated with too much luggage. It’s family—they can stand to see you in the same jeans a few days in a row. While you’re at it, pack a lunch. A family of four can easily burn through $50 on a not-so-satisfying airport meal. Or, you can inspire envy with your homemade picnic. Bonus: You’ll feel better and have more energy when you get of the plane than if you’d opted for fast food.

3 Don’t pay shipping
Get free shipping from hundreds of online retailers by ordering on free shipping day: Thursday, December 18. Many bricks and mortar retailers also offer free “site to store” shipping. Target comps shipping on all online orders (and 5% off) when you use their REDCard. Plus, it’s tied to your checking account so you aren’t racking up a credit card balance. Amazon Mom and Amazon Student accounts are free, and if you have not had an Amazon Prime account in the last 13 months, you can sign up for a free 1-month trial. Free shipping all around!


4 Buy Smart
Rocha suggests for price history information. “At a glance you can see the highest, lowest and average price that an item as sold for at” She also advocates using coupons for items you plan to buy anyway. Don’t forget price matching, says Rocha. “Some retailers will even give you a price adjustment if you they offer a lower price in the days after you’ve made a purchase.”

5 Teach kids gratitude, not comparison
Rocha says we can overspend because we want our children to feel loved and we sometimes justify excess in the name of being a good provider. “If we stop and take a step back and look down deep, we need to ask if we’re actually trying to ensure our kids don’t feel left behind or left out when they compare gifts with their friends.” So what if the cousins get a new Xbox? Make your kids happy and check your “provider ego” under the mistletoe.

6 Count everything.
It’s not just about gifts. This time of year is full of extra expenses. Hosting family meals or holiday parties, cards, postage, and pricey baking ingredients all stretch the budget. Rocha advises drafting a meal plan at Thanksgiving. “Include what you plan to bake, so you can cherry pick the best sale-priced items from the grocery store throughout December.” Look at holiday spending holistically—and trim strategically. Nobody wants you to scrimp on the fudge!

7 Shop with purpose
Set limits, says Rocha “Whether you limit who you buy for, how much you’ll spend or how many things you’ll get, you need to set a boundary.” She also warns against trying to get everything on your list in one day. She suggests shopping online instead, like she does. “I can snag the deals as they come up, but I don’t have to traipse through the mall time and again. Truth be told, the fewer times you go to the mall, the less you’re likely to spend.”

If none of these ideas sound good, it’s time to get a part-time gig for the holidays. The extra income will keep holiday expenses in check. If you’re lucky, the employee discounts can be applied to your gift list. Just make sure you budget for earplugs; Non-stop holiday music won’t hurt your budget, but it could do permanent damage to your mental health.

Lela Davidson is the award-winning author of Blacklisted from the PTAWho Peed on My Yoga Mat?, and Faking Balance: Adventures in Work and Life