Give yourself the gift of a debt-free holiday

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Whether you watch out, cry or pout for the remainder of the year, Santa Claus is coming to town. Unfortunately, his impending arrival (and the holiday season in general) could cause some damage to your pocketbook and your long-term financial health.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicted that consumers would spend between 4.3% and 4.8% more on holiday gifts in 2018 than the year before for a grand total of up to $720 billion. If past results are any indication, individual Americans could end the holiday season with $1,000 or more in credit card debt to start off the new year, according to MagnifyMoney holiday debt studies from 2015 to 2017.

When it comes to credit cards, making it through the holidays debt-free can pose a challenge. Still, why not be the exception and not the rule?

Make a plan so that you’re not in a position of having to use credit as a crutch. With the right amount of discipline, you can reduce spending on gifts and activities you can’t necessarily afford.

As the holidays approach, consider these tips to use credit wisely and begin the new year without an ounce of regret.

Refine your shopping list

Saving money on holiday shopping is about who you buy for just as much as how much you spend.

If you’re angling to save money, ask yourself if you need to buy for everyone you’ve shopped for in the past. Do you need to keep buying gifts for former neighbors, grown-up cousins or aunts and uncles you hardly see? Wouldn’t a call or a card with a heartfelt message do just as well?

Make a list, check it twice and make some judicious cuts if you hope to reduce your holiday budget this year. If you’re worried your streamlined gift list will lead to awkward moments (like your Aunt Karen asking why you didn’t buy for her mom), send out a note or email to notify people you’re reducing your holiday spending this year. They may or may not be happy with your decision, but at least they’ll know.

Reconsider gift exchanges

Holiday gift exchanges can be a fun way to celebrate with family, friends and co-workers, but this is one aspect of the holidays where you can have too much of a good thing. Participating in too many gift exchanges can wreck your budget if you’re required to bring even a moderately priced gift to each one. Plus, generic gift exchanges where you purchase a random gift worth X amount aren’t exactly personal or meaningful.

If you want to save on gift exchanges, figure out which ones you participate in are most important and ditch the rest. You may feel obligated to join the gift exchange in your office, for example, but not the $20 generic gift exchange with your extended family you tend to dread.

Before you quit an exchange altogether, you can also suggest participants bring a “white elephant” gift instead of buying one. With this type of exchange, everyone brings a funny, unique or unwanted item from around their home. This makes white elephant exchanges fun and quirky without requiring any holiday spending at all.

Create a budget for holiday gifts

Once you have your shopping list ready (including any gift exchanges), make sure to set a budget for each person you buy for. Setting a budget for individual gifts will help you avoid overspending on any one person. A comprehensive budget will also help you determine how much you’ll spend overall so you can plan your household budget and year-end spending accordingly.

Remember that a holiday budget doesn’t have to be restrictive, either. The goal of a budget and spending plan is helping you realize how much money you need for gifts. If your holiday shopping and spending list adds up to $500 total, for example, you’ll know to set this amount aside. Without this knowledge, you’re much more likely to spend more than you need and not realize it until it’s too late.

Use credit cards to your advantage

While credit cards are often blamed for our holiday spending woes, it’s possible to use them to your advantage. The key to doing so is figuring out how they might benefit you, avoiding interest and making sure you don’t make charges you can’t afford to pay back on time.

Save money on interest

Let’s say you need to borrow money for the holidays and pay it back slowly over time. In that case, you could pick up a credit card that offers 0% APR on purchases for a limited time.

The Chase Freedom® is a solid option to consider since it offers 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months of account opening (balance transfer fees apply) then a variable APR of 16.74% to 25.49%. By scoring 15 months without interest, you could make your holiday purchases and pay them off slowly within that time without a dime in interest payments.

Earn rewards

You can also use credit cards to earn rewards on your holiday shopping, including signup bonuses. However, the right rewards card for you depends on the type of rewards you hope to earn.

If you prefer to earn cash back, the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards credit card is worth considering. This card’s current offer is for $500 in bonus cash if you spend $3,000 on your card within three months of account opening. You also earn 4% on dining out and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% back on all other purchases. There is a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived the first year.

If you prefer travel rewards, consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. This card comes with 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within three months of account opening. You also earn 2x points on dining and travel and 1x points on all other purchases. Your points are worth $750 in travel through the Chase portal, but you can also transfer points to airline and hotel loyalty partners 1:1.

Redeem rewards for gifts

If you have points and miles already with no plans to use them, cashing them in for gifts can help you reduce your holiday credit card spending and emerge from the season debt-free. Fortunately, most rewards credit cards let you redeem your points in more than one way — including for statement credits or gift cards. With that in mind, you can:

  • Redeem points for gift cards and give them as gifts (or use them to buy gifts)
  • Use points for statement credits you can use to reduce your credit card bill
  • Redeem points for merchandise on (cards like the Chase Freedom® and Discover it® Cash Back offer this option)
  • Use points to book travel for family and friends

The key to redeeming points to help your holiday budget is knowing what options you have. If you have airline miles or hotel points, for example, you may have few ways to redeem other than for travel. However, many cash-back credit cards let you redeem points for statement credits, gift cards or merchandise. Read your credit card’s terms and conditions to find out how you can spend your points before you decide.

Go into 2019 debt-free

Don’t let holiday debt create a lingering effect that lasts well into the new year. If you use credit responsibly and change a few things that aren’t working for you, it’s possible to escape the holidays debt-free.

Santa may know when you’re sleeping (and when you’re awake), but he won’t mind if you save money this year.

Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson began her career working in the funeral industry, which may make you wonder why she works in personal finance now. Yet, the funeral industry taught the author everything she needs to know about the value of one's money and time. Johnson left the mortuary business a decade ago in order to explore her passion for personal finance and travel the world, and since then, she and her husband have built a debt-free lifestyle that has them on the path to retire very wealthy in their 40s. Holly's love of budgeting also led to the creation of her debt payoff book, “Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love."