With the biggest spending season of the year approaching, financial planning experts in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offer some advice on budgeting for the holidays — and having a meaningful Christmas without overspending.
Nathan Harness, Ph.D., director of the Financial Planning Program, and Nick Kilmer, Ph.D., a lecturer and designer of the money education program, both in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Bryan-College Station, have combined experience in both short- and long-term financial planning.
Each semester, Kilmer teaches some 1,000 students financial and money management principles that can be applied to the holidays and beyond in his Foundations of Money Education course.
Harness and Kilmer identified some of the most important aspects of holiday budgeting and gave some tips on how to make the most of every dollar during the holiday season.
Planning your holiday budget
Harness said putting a holiday budget together should start well before the holidays, but it’s not too late to set up a budget, especially for Christmas shopping.
“There’s some time before Christmas to set up your own list or spreadsheet or to find a budgeting platform that will work for you,” he said. “And then take advantage of price comparison tools like Google Shopping or PriceGrabber.”
Shoppers should have an overarching cap on all Christmas gift spending, including a limit on what you want to reasonably spend for each person on your shopping list.
“Compile a list of all the people you need to buy gifts for and the amount you can realistically spend on each person and still stay within your established spending limit,” Harness said.
Kilmer added that budgeting for holiday gifts also competes with other extra expenses, such as eating out and entertainment so it’s important to prioritize your holiday spending and look for lower-cost alternatives.
“You can cut down on those by eating at home or checking for free or low-cost events in your community that the entire family can enjoy,” he said.
Get financial planning buy-in, track spending
Kilmer said for families it’s important to make sure everyone is involved in the budgeting and agrees with the budget, making it a team financial goal.
“As a family, you should also celebrate reaching your budgeting goals,” he said. “Get your kids involved in things like finding the best deal on Christmas gift items. Kids enjoy a friendly competition, and the budgeting exercise provides a useful life lesson in money management.”
Harness said along with communicating expectations with others, it’s necessary to also guard against seasonal spending urges.
“While shopping, we often come across various items that we think others may like or that we would like for ourselves,” he said. “While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, buying on impulse is a sure way to exceed your holiday spending limit.”
He said only buy the gifts you intend to, or if you think you’ve found a better gift, make sure it’s about the same price as the one you decided upon originally.
“Keep a running tally of what you have spent and regularly check to see if you are meeting your budgeting goals,” he said.
Paying for your holidays
Harness said it’s important to use cash or a debit card for as many holiday purchases as possible to avoid the interest that always comes with the convenience of credit.
“You don’t want to spend the first month — or possibly even the first quarter — of the new year paying off the Christmas purchases you made with your credit cards,” he said.
Kilmer added that this may present another important money management lesson for your children.
“Here’s an opportunity to tell your kids about credit and how much you have to pay for the ‘privilege’ of using it,” he said. “Many credit card interest rates are 20% or more, so you can show your kids how much you’ll really be paying for an item.”
Focus on meaningful experiences
Kilmer said sometimes buying an expensive gift is more of a “shortcut” if what the recipient would rather have is your time or attention.
“You don’t have to spend more to show somebody you love them,” he said. “Sometimes a do-it-yourself gift or special gift like a personalized calendar or taking the time to make homemade baked goods as a gift can mean more to a loved one.”
He said you can make gift-giving even more fun by making it a game.
“You can do a white elephant exchange and set a limit on what to pay for the gifts,” he said. “And there are many other games you can make out of gift-giving that will add to the personal engagement and enjoyment of the experience.”
In case of a holiday windfall
If you’re one of the fortunate people who gets a holiday bonus, Harness suggests that you use the “One-Third Rule” for the extra money.
“The rule says you should save one-third of that bonus amount, spend one-third of it and use the final third to pay off outstanding debt,” he said. “In financial planning, we have a 50-30-20 rule that refers to using 50% of your income for needs, 30% for wants and 20% for savings. This is something of a modification that will allow you to increase your wealth by saving a third of that holiday windfall.”
He said some other applications for those holiday bonus dollars might include donations to charities or causes, paying down credit card or student debt, putting it into an emergency account or saving it for a larger, more long-term financial goal.