smart spending

Best ways to save for holiday shopping

For many, the winter holidays conjure up images of giving and receiving: Giving out hundreds of dollars in December, then receiving a stack of bills in the new year.

But there's another vision, one of wise consumers planning for this predictably expensive time by saving up, rather than spending away.

"I used to hate Christmas because you get this bill in January that said you owe two or three thousand dollars," says Greg Benson, a former government relations official with America's Community Bankers, a trade organization. "Now I put $100 away each month, add my own interest and I give my wife a check every year on Nov. 1."

Top savings choice

That kind of stockpiling is what experts advise people to start doing now -- if they haven't already -- so they can earn a little interest at the bank instead of paying out even more to the credit card company.

At the top of the recommendation list is a money market account, which offers slightly higher rates than a standard savings account but doesn't lock money away in the manner of a certificate of deposit, or CD.

"It's not a bad way of going," says Errold Moody, a financial planner and lecturer in San Leandro, Calif. "You get a reasonable return without having to worry about risk, and you have a lot of liquidity."

That can come in handy if a gift shows up in stores between now and December and the consumer needs to take out money to buy it, Moody says.

Consider CDs

But if that person wants an even higher rate -- and has the willpower to resist spending until the holidays approach -- a short-term CD might be the best bet. (For the best rates in your state, check out Bankrate.com's 100 Highest Yields, which updates weekly.)

The benefit of a CD is even greater if a consumer can add money to it the way one would to a savings account.

"Some banks do allow you a limited number of additions to a CD that will hold a rate," says Rob Rowe, regulatory counsel for the Independent Community Bankers Association of America. "If you open a CD for something like $1,000 for six months, you can sometimes put in something like three additional deposits."

Of course, there usually is a penalty for early withdrawals from CDs, so experts advise that consumers be sure they can leave the money put.

Christmas club tradition

For more traditional types, the old Christmas club account is an option. These products pay rates similar to those offered by regular savings accounts and encourage people to save during the months leading up to the holidays.

Typically, customers make monthly or weekly deposits through electronic payroll deductions or other methods while banks either prevent or penalize withdrawals. In exchange, depositors get a check or automatic transfer to their regular account sometime in October, November or December for the overall amount plus interest.

"Christmas clubs or vacation clubs have been something that have been offered for years and years,'' says Benson. "There are ways that institutions are using them, especially in nonmetropolitan areas, where the customers like them, have used them for years and don't want to get rid of them."

While finding a Christmas club account is not difficult, credit unions and smaller community banks are more likely to offer them over regional and large banks. Several advertise them on the Internet. The American Bankers Association's 2002 retail banking survey found that about 31 percent -- down from 68 percent in 1999 -- of large banks offer some sort of a club account, whether it's for Christmas, Hanukkah, vacation or other special purchase. The number of community banks offering these accounts has remained steady at 35 percent.

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