To you, it may be the holiday season. To me, it's the danger season. I'm talking about the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when 20 percent of our country's annual retail spending occurs. Jamming one-fifth of our spending into a frenzied window of shopping time can lead to a lot of bills we have no way of paying come January.
If you really want to put the joy back into your holiday season, focus on how you can avoid ripping yourself off.
Here are five ways to avoid holiday overspending:
Don't double the cost of anything you buy with a credit card by not paying it off when the bill comes next month.
The absolute worst move you can make is to charge gifts on a credit card you can't afford to pay off. If you run up a $1,000 balance this holiday season - that's close to the forecast of average individual spending - and you intend to pay it off slowly each month by making minimum payments, your interest charges will total about $1,000 if your card has an 18 percent rate.
In other words, your total gift spending will double. That's just financially irresponsible.
Get organized. I'm typically not a huge fan of budgets, but come holiday season I think a written-in-stone budget is a must. Before you spend one penny on gifts, create a master list of every person you intend to give a gift to this year. Then figure out a reasonable total dollar amount you can afford to spend on gifts.
Every time you make a gift purchase, record it in your budget list: how much you spend, who the gift is for, and how much money is left in the budget. Keep that list nearby at all times - at the mall, or next to your computer when you're shopping online. And wherever and whenever you're gift shopping, make sure it's for a specific person on your list; stay focused so you can stay under budget.
Let's be clear: If you have an unpaid balance on a credit card with a high interest rate right now, your gift-giving budget is zero. That doesn't mean you can't give gifts - you just shouldn't spend money on them. Get creative. Offer to look after your friends' kids for two Saturday nights for free. Invite friends over for a lovely holiday dinner. If you have friends who are big on house projects, tell them you would love to lend a hand and a hammer to their renovation projects.
Decline store card offers. When you're standing at a checkout counter and the clerk offers you a 10 percent discount if you agree to open a store credit-card account, say no. It's a trap.
First, it seems to be human nature that you'll use that 10 percent discount as an excuse to buy more. You figure you're saving 10 percent, so why not pick up a few more things? Here's why: Because you'll end up spending more than you intended when you stepped up to the cash register.
Next, the more cards you put your spending on, the harder it is to keep track of your spending. And if you can't pay off the bill pronto, you're in bad shape: Retail credit cards typically charge interest of 20 percent or more.
It doesn't matter if you have a great FICO credit score, you'll still get hit with that ridiculous interest rate. And before you open up a bunch of retail cards for the 10 percent discount, remember that part of your FICO score is dependent on whether you've obtained new credit over the last 12 months.
Handle your gift card with care.
It is an all-too-common pattern to spend more than the amount of a gift card. A lot of folks plan to add their own cash to money they receive on a gift card to purchase items they want. So instead of spending the $100 gift card at the electronics store, you end up spending $400 for the game console of your dreams and are content that you only had to spend $300 of your own money to buy it.
Just because you had the $100 gift card to make the purchase less painful doesn't mean you saved any money. You spent $300 and didn't save a penny.
There are far more important financial priorities than that game console, or whatever else you've set your sights on. If you keep spending rather than saving, you're going to be very sorry later on.
You can't buy friends or love.
An important relationship is not defined by what you spend on a holiday gift. Slow down and really think through where the pressure is coming from. It's often self-inflicted, so keep in mind that the best gift you can ever give to yourself is one of financial honesty. If you want to make a dent in your debt load this year rather than add to it, just be honest about your situation. No one is going to love you less or devalue a treasured friendship just because you're not exchanging expensive gifts this year.