Preparing for the holiday season is all fun and games until you take a glance at your bank account balance.
Now that we’re entering some of the busiest shopping days of the year, it’s important to consider how you’re going to pay for everything. According to a new Bankrate survey, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (63 percent) say they’ve felt pressured to spend more than they’re comfortable with on holiday travel, gifts, charitable donations and social gatherings.
Budgeting is one of the easiest ways to monitor and control how much you’re spending, but keeping up with the plan you set is easier said than done.
To alleviate some of the financial frustration that inevitably arises during this season, find out what financial experts suggest when it comes to making and sticking to a holiday budget and saving money.
Review your personal budget
Budgeting for the holidays involves more than just making a list and checking it twice. Now is a good time to take a closer look at how money is coming in and how much is flowing out of your accounts each month.
Review your checking account balance online or check your statements. Calculate how much you’re bringing home after taxes from your primary job and any side hustles. List out your fixed expenses — an estimate of your electric bill, mortgage payment and other expenses you regularly cover. Add up these amounts to get a total of how much money you can’t avoid spending from month to month. Then, estimate how much of your income is going toward variable and miscellaneous expenses, like trips to the movies and Uber rides.
Make any necessary changes to your budget, taking into consideration that you’ll need to leave room for holiday spending. Depending on your financial situation, you may have to make some adjustments so you can afford gifts or the end-of-the-year holiday party you’re throwing for your friends. Avoid letting your holiday plans interfere with other financial goals.
If needed, have a conversation with your family so they’re aware of how you’re aligning what you’re planning to spend this season with your efforts to pay down student loans or prepare for retirement, says Sheri Conklin, a certified financial planning professional in Roseville, California.
Build a holiday budget
Within the framework of your updated personal budget, think carefully about how much you can spend this holiday season. Try to think of every possible expense that might come up, like gifts for your kids’ teachers, postage, greeting cards and seasonal coffees, says budgeting expert, Andrea Woroch.
“Chances are you will have to cut back in other areas to balance it all,” Woroch says. “Look over your bank and credit card statements during this same time last year to see where you spent money unexpectedly and think about how you can prepare better this year or remove the purchases altogether.”
How much should you expect to spend during the holidays? It depends, but Kristian Finfrock, president of Retirement Income Strategies in Madison, Wisconsin, says 1 percent of your annual income is a good number for holiday budgets. That means if you’re earning $60,000 a year, you might want to plan to spend about $600 this season.
Don’t forget to leave room in your budget for potential overspending or people you may forget to purchase gifts for, says Michael Gerstman, chief executive officer of Gerstman Financial Group in Dallas. His recommended buffer is 20 percent to avoid additional debt problems or surprises come January.
[READ: 6 ways to give money as a gift]
How to stick to your budget
Revisiting your budget and incorporating your holiday spending plan are good steps to take. The hard part will be putting your plan in motion without ending up in the red.
Tracking your expenses is key. Apps like Mint can help. If you’re worried about blowing your budget on holiday travel, try out the Holiday Planner Lite app, Woroch says.
Keeping the money you’re planning to use for the holidays in a separate account is another approach, especially if you’re worried about overspending. You could open a separate online account at a bank that lets you name your accounts. Plus, there may be an opportunity to earn some interest if you pick a bank with a high-yield savings account. Once that money runs out (and you’ve reached your spending limit), you’ll know it’s time to stop shopping.
Be intentional about finding other ways to save money. For instance, skip the professional family photo shoot that ends with you mailing out holiday cards, Woroch adds. Instead, she recommends emailing pictures or sending handwritten notes.
It’s also a good idea to look for coupons and special offers. All Black Friday deals aren’t worth snagging, so look carefully to see how much you would actually save by running over to the mall after your Thanksgiving feast. Woroch suggests trying out Honey, a free browser extension that helps you find coupons. It tracks the history of prices, too, so you can decide whether to purchase an item now or wait to buy it when it’s cheaper.
Consider using a rewards credit card (or debit card if your bank offers one). As you shop, you can easily earn cash back, miles or points. A prepaid card is also an option, says Conklin.
Review how you did
At the end of the year, you’ll want to review how you did, says Skip Johnson, co-founder of Great Waters Financial in Minneapolis.
“Take out that list you made before the holidays and compare what you actually ended up spending,” Johnson says. “Take steps to get back on track if needed. Or, if you came in under budget, you may be able to take advantage of stocking up on décor, wrapping paper and similar items in post-holiday major clearance sales to get a head start on next year’s holiday budget!”
Opening an account right after the new year could be also wise. That way, you’re getting a head start on saving up for the next holiday season, Gerstman says.
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