Illustration by José Vélez
By Prachi Bhardwaj
November 25, 2019

Listen up, holiday procrastinators: The 2019 holiday shopping season is six whole days shorter than it was last year, so it’s officially time to figure out how to spend smart.

The fourth Thursday of November, AKA Thanksgiving, usually falls earlier in the month. But a November that starts on a Friday means Thanksgiving is on the 28th — the latest day possible. Those of us who generally wait until after turkey day to start checking Christmas lists will only have 26 shopping days instead of last year’s 32, which equates to one fewer weekend.

That’s a red flag for your wallet, considering there’s nothing quite like last-minute desperation to make you forget what you can actually afford.

“Every year like clockwork come the new year, we see folks coming out of that spend[ing behavior],” said Jay Moon, Vice President of Marketing at credit and loan company Credit Sesame. What follows is a January of penny pinching and paying off credit cards — something Moon refers to as the “holiday hangover.”

To learn more about this cyclical behavior, the company recently conducted a survey of 1,000 respondents with varying credit scores and demographics. They found that 37% of those surveyed said they don’t budget for the holidays, and 22% even open a new credit card in anticipation of holiday spending. The solution, Moon says, is months of planning, saving, and taking advantage of deals like Prime Day and the ever-earlier Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals.

But it’s the last week of November, so what’s the point in harping? It’s not too late to make sure you don’t blow your budget, and maybe even save in the process. Here’s a two-step plan.

Put the “Ho ho ho” in ‘Holistic’

Your first task is to think about holiday spending holistically, because it’s easy to forget that this time of year is expensive for a lot of different reasons.

“It’s important from a budgeting perspective to think about all the holiday-related spending,” said Moon. “Gifts certainly is a big one, but also holiday parties, social gatherings, holiday cards, decorations, and travel are big ones as well.”

While you’re telling yourself it’s fine to spend a little more on that gift because the holidays only come around once a year, there are other costs adding up in the background. So categorize your expenses (gifts, groceries for Christmas and/or Hanukkah dinners, cards, travel) and give them each their own bucket so you can start thinking about how much you want to spend in every area.

“For the bigger categories — gifts for example — [think] about itemizing,” said Moon. That way you can plan to spend a little more on loved ones and see if you have enough for anyone you’re on the fence about.

Visit the Bills of Christmas Past

Next, think about your budgeting habits from previous years. But don’t just assume you remember correctly: Dig up your credit card bills from last November and December to see where the money actually went. It’s a research tactic that Moon uses himself.

“I have my own spreadsheet in terms of thinking about the different category areas — my wife and I happen to spend a lot on holiday cards, so that’s a line item for us,” he said. “Really getting into the nitty gritty helps us think about that.”

So sure, looking at those line items was the last thing you wanted to do in January. But doing it with fresh eyes can put into perspective what you can afford this year …and what you can afford to leave out. Maybe you attended more holiday parties than you remember, or spent more on the family feast than you recall. And you probably don’t need another $50 wreath.

“We just see so much consistent behavior in the data, so we encourage folks to really think about gathering as much [personal budgeting] data as possible,” said Moon. “So they can think about the upcoming holiday season on short order.”

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