Welcome to Money Matters, featuring WSECU's Briana Mickelson, VP, Member Experience. In this ongoing radio segment and blog series, you'll find personal finance advice, spending and saving tips, and information about current financial trends. Gain practical knowledge you can use every day to help you make the most of your money. Explore the latest episode topics each week.
Hidden holiday costs and where to find them
The holidays always come with their share of expenses. Beyond the obvious ones, such as gift-giving, travel, and food, certain hidden costs can emerge to push your budget to the limit.
All those decorative holiday lights are one example. They may be pretty, but they can add $50 a month or more to your electric bill. If you haven’t already, consider getting LED lights, which use 75% less energy than traditional bulbs and last years longer. Also, try not to leave lights on overnight. An automatic timer can help, especially for outdoor decorations.
Buying new giftwrap every year will also nibble away at your budget. There’s no shame in using supplies from last year (it’s certainly better for the environment) or saving and re-using gift bags and ribbons. If your supplies do start to run low, show off your foresight by buying next year’s wrapping paper (and cards) in January at discounted prices.
Shipping costs are often costly but are usually forgotten until the last minute. Postal rates that were once only slightly painful have become nearly traumatizing in recent years. Stick with retailers who offer free shipping, or wait until Free Shipping Day on Dec. 14 to see if your preferred seller is participating. Whatever you do, try to plan ahead to avoid expedited shipping costs, which have left more than one shopper sobbing over their computer screen.
Gift cards are growing more popular every year, but be aware that cards sold by banks and credit card companies sometimes charge a $4.50 activation fee, as well as a monthly $2.95 inactivity fee. You and your recipient will be better off sticking with retail store gift cards, which charge only their face value.
Ever been tempted to buy an extended warranty that you never used? More than once, maybe? You’re not alone. The truth is, most items don’t break within the extended warranty period, so consider rolling the dice this year and saving money that’s better spent elsewhere.
For over-spenders, overdraft fees and high-interest credit card balances can go hand-in-hand with holiday shopping. Set a spending budget that’s within your means and regularly check bank balances. If you want to make sure you won’t be paying interest for the foreseeable future, try to pay off credit cards at the end of each month.
Every now and then, between the clicking of buy buttons and the joyful ringing of cash registers, remind yourself that the holidays are for appreciating loved ones, and that doesn’t have to come with a price tag.
Shop the holidays while keeping your costs down
The holiday season is right around the corner. Along with that comes holiday shopping. You want to give everybody the world. When it comes to giving those tangible items, though, costs can escalate quickly if you’re not careful.
Here are some steps you can take to satisfy your holiday shopping while keeping your finances in control.
1. Make your list (and check it twice). Create a gift list and if you see too many names on it, consider reducing it to close friends and family. Giving a card to those not on the gift list is still in step with the holiday spirit.
2. Set a budget and stick to it. Lock in on a dollar amount for each person. Don’t forget to factor in costs for cards, boxes, wrapping paper and stocking stuffers. If you buy a device in which batteries are sold separately, that’s an extra expense too. Account for those secondary parts of the gift when you’re calculating costs. Shipping can also bust your budget. Check for stores that offer free shipping during the holidays, or consider buying several gifts at once to hit a store’s minimum for free shipping.
3. Get an early start. That means doing online research, window shopping, price comparisons, coupon clipping and identifying when sales will happen. The sooner you start, the greater the chance you’ll find what you want at lower prices. Websites like retailmenot.com and edealinfo.com let you compare items across multiple sites, which can save you lots of money.
4. Use cash or debit cards instead of credit. Remember that budget you created at step two? You probably didn’t account for interest payments from credit cards. That’s another budget buster. Unless you’re going to pay off the whole thing when you get your bill, stick to cash or your debit card.
5. Set a gift or dollar limit. Once you hit the quota, that’s it. Cross their name off your list. And no last-minute purchases to add some holiday spruce to what you already bought.
Never lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday season. It’s less about the stuff you get for each other and more about the experiences you share. While the gifts are nice, it’s the time you spend together that you’ll really remember.
How your credit card can avoid holiday weight gain
There’s a good reason nobody puts credit card debt on their holiday wish list. It’s a “gift” that keeps on giving for far longer than anybody would like.
So, how can you avoid crushing debt as you head into the holiday shopping season?
Start with the cascade of plastic that lines your wallet. However many cards you may have, try to use the ones with the lowest interest rates. That means avoiding department store credit cards. While convenient, these usually come with sky-high interest rates just waiting to inflate outstanding balances.
Speaking of balances, if you’re already carrying one (or more), try to pay them down as much as possible before wading into this season’s sale-infested waters. There’s no sense in making a bad situation worse.
One thing to consider is transferring those existing balances to a zero-interest credit card. This can be a good temporary solution, especially if the 0% introductory rate lasts 15 months or more and the transfer fees are low. Try not to make it a habit, as it can affect your credit score in the long run.
Going forward, treat your credit card like a debit card to prevent recurring debt. In other words, don’t spend more than you know you can pay off when the next bill arrives (sometimes easier said than done, of course).
If that’s not possible, another way to curb overspending (accidental or otherwise) is to limit the number of cards you use. The less temptation, the better, right?
If that perfect gift still seems just out of reach, check for any credit card promotions, such as reward points or cash-back offers. These can be extremely handy, especially this time of year, and are often forgotten or overlooked.
Avoid cash advances at all costs (no pun intended). These not only come with high fees but also have significantly higher interest rates than regular credit card transactions. Once you go down that road, it’s a vicious game that’s tough to win.
Often, planning ahead can be your best route to holiday solvency. Set an overall shopping budget. Then make a list of recipients and how much you’d like to spend on each. Look for gifts throughout the year, adding them to online lists to be purchased as your budget allows or when prices are too good to pass up.
Of course, it’s a good idea to hold onto holiday shopping receipts in case you need to return something or confirm you were correctly charged. But there’s another psychological advantage to retaining those slippery stubs of paper: A glimpse at your ongoing total can provide a reality check that helps keep spending from getting out of hand.
Whatever your tactics, it’s always easier to enjoy the holidays when credit card debt doesn’t follow you into the new year. You can also take comfort knowing your credit card hasn’t put on the holiday pounds!
Tune in to STAR 101.5 weekday afternoons at 5:50 p.m. to hear money tips and ideas to make your dollars go further, featuring WSECU's Briana Mickelson.
You can visit the Money Matters page on star1015.com/sponsored/money-matters to read more money management advice from WSECU.
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Content provided by WSECU, edited by Sinclair Broadcast Group.