Archive for Thursday, November 24, 2005

Make a holiday list, stick to budget

November 24, 2005


Financial fatigue from already maxed-out credit cards and high energy prices should make consumers clamp down on their holiday spending.

But for many, it won't. They will get caught up in the frenzy of Black Friday shopping and overspend. If they have a gift list, it won't do any good because they'll still rack up debt on the credit cards they only just managed to pay down before the holidays hit.

So this year, instead of my usual lecture about overspending, I thought I would arm you with some tips that will at least lighten your debt load.

The typical advice: Make a gift list before you go shopping.

My advice: Set a budget. Make the list first and you're in trouble from the get-go. Instead, figure out how much you want to spend (I would say afford, but that typically goes unheeded). So if you want to give a gift to everybody and their mama, you better be prepared to do some serious bargain shopping.

Also, remember that you don't have to give a gift to everyone who gave you something last year. If money is tight, just send a really nice holiday card (and you can get some nice ones from the many dollar stores around).

Typical advice: Pay with cash.

My advice: Yeah, right. Like many consumers are following that advice. OK, so you're going to use credit. That's not an entirely bad thing, especially if you're buying expensive gifts like electronics. In fact, paying with credit gives you some consumer protections that cash doesn't. Once a business has your cash and if there is a problem with the service or merchandise, the merchant is the dictator, deciding your avenues of remedy or refund. But when you use credit you have an ally - your credit card issuer.

For example, let's say you order an iPod online for your husband but it doesn't arrive and you're billed anyway. You can complain to your credit card company and by law they have to investigate the discrepancy. In the meantime you don't have to pay for the undelivered item until the situation is resolved.

Stay below 50 percent

If you're going to use credit to charge your Christmas gifts, here's a tip that might help you limit your spending: Keep your charges below 50 percent of your available credit limit. In other words, if you have a credit card with a maximum limit of $2,000, don't charge more than $1,000.

Charging more than 50 percent of your available credit limit can cause a major drop in your credit score. That drop can trigger your credit card company (and other credit card lenders for that matter) to increase the interest rate you're charged. So not only will you have high credit card bills to pay down after the holiday season is over, the interest rate you're charged might go up on that debt. And, by the way, keeping your balances below 50 percent includes the total on all the credit cards you're using.

Typical advice: Get extra savings by signing up for instant credit that retailers offer when you buy something.

My advice: Instantly say, "No."

Let's say you're going to buy a $300 leather coat for your wife. You're thinking a 10 percent discount can save you $30. But opening another credit account triggers a credit inquiry to a credit bureau. A credit inquiry is simply a record that a lender has looked at your credit report. A credit inquiry can lower your credit score. Even a small drop in your credit score can kick you down to a lower credit tier and that could end up making you pay more when you need credit again to buy a new house, refinance a current one, or purchase a new car.

A credit savvy person can take advantage of these offers with minimal impact to their credit scores. But most people aren't that savvy and that 10 percent discount ends up costing them a lot more money in the long term.

Worthwhile wait

Lastly, the typical advice: Shop early to avoid last-minute impulse buying.

My advice: Go ahead and wait until the last minute.

In fact, put off your shopping until Christmas Eve or a few hours before the stores close on Christmas Eve.

No, I'm not mad.

Think about it: If you don't have a lot of time to shop, you can't spend a lot of money. OK, so you might not find the right size or all the cool electronic stuff will be sold out, but that's a good thing. Trust me, there still will be plenty of stuff to buy. And perhaps because you have so little time to shop and all the hottest or trendy stuff is gone, you'll buy less expensive, more-practical gifts.

Really, your children don't need more toys. But I bet they need a lot of practical things. Come on, how many mornings do your kids yell downstairs that they can't find a matching pair of socks?


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