Spending Smart During The Holidays

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, which means that it also happens to be the most expensive time of the year. With the holidays and #ALLthebirthdays happening over the next month (my family was basically all born in December), I’m no stranger to feeling a little financially stretched this time of year. No matter how much you plan and budget, it’s hard to not feel a spending hangover by January.

So what’s a quasi-financially responsible person (who doesn’t want to be a Scrooge) to do?


The first step is to know who you are buying gifts for and set a maximum amount on how much you spend for each person on your list. And by “list” I mean a physical, written down, pen and paper list. Not just a “list” in your mind with estimates.

It’s easy to go a little overboard when you aren’t keeping track. Yes, writing out a list of who and how much will probably add up to an overwhelming number, but it’s a good overwhelming number to be aware of (instead of being surprised by said number in January on your credit card statement).

Next, start thinking of ideas for those people that fall in line with your budget. If you are tight on money and you can get it on sale, here’s a secret: they never have to know you got that $50 thing they wanted for $35.

Don’t forget to budget yourself in! Not doing this is just lying to yourself; unless you have the willpower of a dog who can hold a treat on its nose (and let’s be honest, most of us don’t), you should account for the spending you will inevitably do on yourself. It’s okay to buy a few things for yourself, but setting a limit on it will keep you in check.

Get rewarded for your spending

I could go on forever on this category, but I’m going to keep it as short as possible here (happy to discuss in the comments, though)!

If you are going to shop online, you should get yourself some cash back for your efforts. Check out the website cashbackmonitor.com to find out which websites are offering the highest amount of cash back on a purchase before you make it. I also use the Ebates and GivingAssistant plug-ins on my browser (pssst, in full transparency: those are my referral links). They alert me when I’m on a website that offers cash back, I click on them and voila! I’m on my way to 1-20% of my money back.

Speaking of plug-ins, save some dough with Honey if you don’t use it already. Instead of Googling for coupon codes all the time, Honey does it for you at check-out.

Not sure if that thing you’re looking at on Amazon is actually a good deal? CamelCamelCamel can let you know if your item is at the lowest price or if it will likely go lower or has in the past.

Check your credit cards to see if there are any special bonuses during the holiday season. For example, there is a promotion for 5x points at department stores right now on the Chase Freedom card, so if you find yourself at a Macy’s register, that’s a great card to use.

Only spend what you have

That 25% off right now doesn’t do much for you if you are paying months and months of 18% interest on it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: credit cards are awesome when used correctly, but they are downright dangerous when they are not paid off in full. Your budget should reflect money that you actually have in the bank. If it doesn’t – skip along to the “Get creative” section and re-evaluate where you can edit your budget.

If you are worried about your credit card use and think you’ll go overboard, take out your budgeted amounts in cash. My mom has done this trick for years to make sure she doesn’t go over her limit (and yet somehow I still can *sometimes* convince her to go a little overboard on me).

Stock up

With so many great sales, now is a great time to stock up on some of your essentials. If it fits in your budget (read: if there is money left over after you account for all the gifts you want to buy for people when you create a budget), then and only then you can consider stocking up on a few things.

The best things to stock up on are those that are deeply discounted around the holidays, but are rarely discounted on a regular basis throughout the year. So, no, things like Banana Republic sweaters do not fall in this category. If you aren’t getting something from Banana Republic for at least 40% off at any given time of the year, you aren’t doing it right. They nearly always have a sale going on.

For me, a lot of these items fall into the personal care and restaurant categories. A lot of my favorite makeup brands rarely have good sales throughout the year, so I usually stock up on a few items, like costly foundations and perfumes, in December.

Restaurants often have gift card deals around the holidays. If you go to one or two restaurants throughout the year particularly often (looking at you, Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants), snagging deals that get you extra gift cards for money you will spend anyways is a good bet.

These “stock up” items should be included in your budget for yourself. Yes, you can save some money by buying some of these things in December, but it is also important to save a little money (if you can) and be mindful of your cash flow.

Get creative

So what do you do if you can’t afford to buy all this stuff right now? You’ve got options.

  1. DIY – if you are a creative type, this a great route to go. I’m not a very creative person, so I especially love receiving art and decorations during the holidays as gifts.
  2. Defer the gift. A great way to do this is to gift experiences. My best friend and I gift each other concerts for our birthdays, but it sometimes takes us weeks (or months) to decide on a show. With a few weeks or months of breaking room, it’s a lot easier to budget and plan for buying a concert ticket.
  3. Offer up a service that you are good at. For my nephew’s birthday this year, I offered to take his 1-year-old photos and edit them as his birthday gift so I could save some money during an expensive home renovation. I got to spend more time with my nephew, I used the opportunity to work on my photography and editing skills, and my brother and sister-in-law got a “free” photo session – win, win, win!
  4. Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter or card. Heartfelt words and kindness mean a lot more to people than a new sweater ever will. As I get older, I’m trying to be more open to people about why I love them (and tell them I love them!) – we don’t get many opportunities to tell people these types of things, but they are so very important.

Even if you are able to buy all of the gifts on your list this year, I challenge you to write a heartfelt card along with them. Tell your grandma you love her. Tell your brother that you actually do look up to him (even though you give him a lot of grief). Spare yourself the $5 card and share something priceless.

Let us know!

Live Work & Money

About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.

2 thoughts on “Spending Smart During The Holidays

  1. I actually made a spreadsheet this year for gift tracking- the person, my budget, how much I actually spent, 5)3 gift, where it’s shipping to, and any ideas I had floating around! It’s been insanely helpful, especially when I autosum the second and third columns.

Comments are closed.