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Plan Ahead to Keep Holiday Spending Under Control

[October 31st, 2015]

In case you hadn’t noticed yet, the holiday season is upon us. It starts with the witches and ghosts appearing in store aisles, and soon Santa and his reindeer are hot on their heels. Before you know it, you’ve only got a handful of days left to cross those names off your shopping list, wrap all the gifts, and marinate the holiday roast.

After it’s all over comes the not-so-fun part of the holidays: paying off all the credit card bills that come rolling in when January rears its chilly head. The good news is, a little bit of planning now can ease the pain of January debt—leaving you more time for building snowmen and drinking hot chocolate, and less time for worrying about bills.

Here are four tips for keeping holiday spending under control.

Set a realistic budget before you begin. Many people plan to spend as little as possible or some variation of that thought. But it pays to be realistic. Write down all your anticipated expenses—not just gifts, but food, decorations, transportation costs, and anything else the season might entail. Even something simple and frugal-seeming, like baking cookies from scratch, means spending more at the grocery store than you otherwise would. So don’t underestimate your expenses. Know going in what you might spend—and then figure out how you can keep it under control.

Decide how you’ll pay for things. You might be tempted to be cash-based for the holidays, in an effort to reign in spending and not get out of control because of the siren song of your high-limit credit card. But using a credit card can actually be a great strategy. The holidays are a perfect time to maximize your rewards-earning capability. Whether you have a cash back card with rotating categories, or a card that gives frequent flyer miles, you’ll be able to get something back for every dollar you spend—if you play your cards right. Have a strategy for earning rewards, and know which card will net you the best rewards—points, miles, or cash back—at each place where you shop.

Think about cutting the clutter. If you’ve got kids, you probably spend a lot of time telling them (or asking, or pleading) to pick up their toys. Do they really need more? Consider cutting down on the gifts this year, and cutting down on the clutter and cleanup later. A nice gift-giving tradition says to give kids “something you want, something you need, something to play with, and something to read.” Five presents to unwrap, less stuff in your home all year long. And the “something you need” can definitely be socks.

Shop the sales. This is obvious, but don’t overlook it. Retailers really bring out the bargains at this time of year—from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. Comparison shop, don’t make impulse purchases, and take advantage of price guarantees (like Citi Price Rewind, which reimburses you if things go on sale after you buy them). This way, you get more from your money and have less to pay off later.

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