7 tips to beat the post-holiday debt blues

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The stores are decked out in red and green. The shopping season looms large. And retailers are hoping for more growth in this year’s holiday spending than the anemic 1.1 percent year-end expansion they recorded last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

But those hopes may be disappointed because many consumers are cash-strapped and don’t want to incur more debt, holidays or not.

The new urge to not spend is so pervasive that 79 percent of the people queried in a recent StrategyOne survey said they plan to spend less on the holidays this year.

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If you’re determined to escape the cycle of holiday overspending, here’s how to do it:

1. Make a budget. “The more you plan, the less you spend,” says Ellie Kay, a family financial planning expert in Palmdale, Calif. It’s not enough to just set up a budget. You’ll also need to keep track of how much you’ve spent and re-evaluate your list along the way.

2. Hold a family meeting. Discuss your holiday shopping plans with your family and try to voice your concerns in terms that everyone can understand, Kay suggests.

“Explain to your children that you have a budget. ‘We don’t want to get into debt, and if we overspend on Christmas, we can’t take that vacation next summer,'” she says.

Bonus tip: Don’t use gifts to compensate for working-parent guilt or compete for blended-family affections.

3. Make it meaningful. Think about how you want your loved ones to remember the holidays and try to create those positive impressions, says Rebecca Schreiber, a Certified Financial Planner at Solid Ground Financial Planning in Silver Spring, Md.

“What sort of kindness do you want to introduce into your life that will be your theme for the holiday?” she asks. “It could more volunteer work or sending out cards to all the people you’ve been meaning to get to, that will relay that you care and that doesn’t necessarily come from the mall.”

4. Memorize a mantra. A holiday mantra can help you focus on your intentions and avoid trigger points that lead you to overspend, Kay says. A personalized mantra may be most effective, but here are some other suggestions: “It’s the thought that counts,” “Spending less means a happy New Year,” “The holidays are about caring, not spending” or “No debt, lots of love.”

Another tip is to keep a card in your wallet or a picture of your loved ones on your desk, to remind yourself of your intentions, Schreiber says.

“Keep constant reminders around yourself as to why the holidays are important to you. So when you get all the sales messages, you have something to counteract them,” she says.

5. Cap and donate. Ask grandparents to accept a cap on spending and donate the balance of any more generous gift they want to give to charity. A donation mentioned in a greeting card, with or without the amount, can substitute for a gift in other situations as well, Kay says.

“Send a nice card, write something personal on it and put a note that you have a made a donation in their name. You don’t have to tell them the amount,” she says. “That keeps you on track with your spending, and it helps the community.”

6. Be ad aware. Stay away from places and activities that are organized around shopping and spending money.

“The more you are in the mall, the more likely you are to overspend,” Kay says. “The more you are shopping online, the more likely you are going to go off your budget. The more you watch (TV shopping channels), the more likely you are to buy stuff you don’t need for people you don’t like.”

To keep your mind off the mall, substitute other activities such as a month-to-month gym membership or subscription to an online movie service. If you must go to the mall, leave your credit card at home, Schreiber says.

“Where you spend your time makes a huge difference in how much you spend,” she says. “If you are at the mall, that’s a dangerous way to spend the morning.”

7. Don’t spend to save. “I really am convinced that you can go broke saving money,” Kay says. That’s because coupons, discounts and other “savings” rarely come without a cost of however much you spent. Focus on how much you’re spending, not how much you’re “saving.”

Bonus tip: Spend your budget on being with your loved ones, rather than buying things for them.