There's a lot of pressure to spend beyond your means during the holiday season. In fact, the National Retail Federation expects the average person celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, and/or Hanukkah to spend $804.42 this year.
But you don't have to play Scrooge to save, especially if you're using a cash-back credit card like Capital One's Quicksilver to earn 1.5% back on the money you're already spending. Planning now for the costs associated with year-end festivities and taking advantage of opportunities to maximize your budget will have you saying peace out to unnecessary post-holiday debt. Here's how to get started.
A turkey and green bean casserole-induced coma usually kicks off the season of spending. Forbes reports that last year, a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people cost an average of $49.04, or about $4.90 per person. Seem mild? That's due to the cost of turkey going down in recent years, but the gorging doesn't end there — the NRF says consumers will spend an average of $104.74 on food over the entire holiday season. Additionally, $53.68 will be spent on decorations — of course, you have the option of outsourcing your decorating for anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. And according to the National Christmas Tree Association (yes, that's a thing) the average price of a live tree runs about $35.
In addition to obvious expenses like Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas trees, there are a number of holiday costs that are easy to forget. That's the insidious nature of holiday purchases — a harmless $10 here and $20 there turns into hundreds of dollars more than you planned to spend. When planning your holiday budget, don't overlook these common financial pitfalls.
Whether you're hosting your own shindig or making an appearance at someone else's party, holiday celebrations involve spending extra money on food, drinks and maybe even small gifts for hosts. Expect a chunk of holiday spending numbers outlined above to go toward these extra items.
If you have children, that also means supplying cupcakes and punch for class parties at school and get-togethers at friends' houses, too. And as much as employees loathe it, be prepared for the annual Secret Santa; the NRF estimates we'll spend $26.23 on coworkers this year.
Opening your home to family and friends is one of the best parts of the holiday season, but it also means an increased use of electricity, gas, and water. John Heath, Directing Attorney at Lexington Law, recommends factoring a 10 to 15 percent increase into your monthly utility budget during this time.
But it's not just socializing that will put a strain on your utility bills. "Most people don't factor in the increase in their energy bill when powering all those holiday lights for the entire month of December, both indoor and out," advised Andrea Woroch, a nationally-recognized consumer and money-saving expert. Use this calculator to estimate how much you'll spend powering your tree and outdoor lights.
Of course, constant trips to the mall and supermarket for gifts and groceries mean you're going to be spending more on gas as well.
No matter how careful your planning, there's always that last-minute realization you skipped someone on your gift list. Of the more than $800 the NRF says Americans will spend on gifts, $80 will be reserved for friends.
"There's a good chance that you will forget to gift people, and you'll suddenly remember because the day before the holidays, someone will tell you what a great gift they got for the babysitter," said April Masini, writer for the critically acclaimed "Ask April" advice column. "Make that list in advance. Check it twice, three and four times. You can adjust your budget more easily if you do it sooner rather than later, when you've already eaten most of your budget up."
And don't forget your pets. The NRF estimates gift-givers will allocate $30.43 toward furry family members.
More than 17.9 billion cards, packages and letters are shipped during the holiday season, with 658 million pieces of mail processed on the busiest day. Most of us know by now that shopping online is a great way to compare prices and save money on everything from decorations to gifts, but it's easy to overlook all the shipping and delivering charges you can rack up. Thank goodness for Free Shipping Day.
You probably don't think of cards and gift wrap as major expenses, but these small purchases quickly increase your holiday budget. "At an average price of $3 to $5 per card, plus postage, the cost of sending warm wishes home for the holidays can add up quickly," adds Woroch.
People will spend an average $29.18 on greeting cards alone, and at $3 to $10 per roll or more, wrapping paper really adds up, too. In fact, Americans spend a total of $2.6 billion on gift wrap every year!
The typical American gives 4.2 percent of their income to charity, with an average donation amount of $142 during the holiday season (versus $91 during the year) according to research by the Network for Good.
Between the Salvation Army Santa standing outside storefronts, to the mail carriers, housekeepers, doormen, and other service providers who are expecting a little something extra for Christmas, giving for the holidays can leave you with little cash left for yourself.
Liam Timmons of Timmons Wealth Management reminds us, "This is typically the time of year people are called on to donate, donate, donate, including providing food to local pantries, services to organizations that are swamped, or gifts for needy families and children. Though all very worthwhile, they need to be considered as part of the holiday spending budget."
If giving is an important component of celebrating the holidays for you, be sure to include it as a separate line item in your budget.
Want to cut the cost of holiday celebrations but don't know where to start? Timmons suggests looking through your bank and credit card statements from the previous holiday season to find out how much you really spent. "Most people are shocked," he says. "Reviewing spending from previous years can help you refine your spending goals and avoid some unnecessary costs, or find cheaper ways of achieving the same goals."
Once you have a grasp on spending habits from previous years and know where you'd like make cuts, create a separate, written budget for the holiday season. Your budget should include all of your normal monthly expenses, as well as the added spending on gifts, holiday meals, decorations, tips and donations, etc. (Not a fan of spreadsheets? Practical Money Skills offers a comprehensive Christmas Budget Calculator to help you plan.) Michelle Black, author and credit expert at HOPE4USA.com, says, "After you have included all of the expected holiday expenses, add a little more for the unexpected," adding, "If you set aside more money than is needed for holiday expenses, great. It certainly beats the alternative — a post holiday debt hangover."
Additionally, look for smart ways to cut down the cost of gift giving. Dollar stores are treasure troves of cheap gift bags, greeting cards, and wrapping paper (honestly, no one will know the difference). Even better, reuse newspapers, magazines, and even cereal boxes as creative alternatives.
And since you know you'll be spending the money anyway, make the most of your holiday budget by earning money back on the items you buy. Signing up for a cash back rewards card like Capital One's Quicksilver means you get paid 1.5% on every purchase — money you can put back in your pocket (or maybe a loved one's stocking) this holiday season.
Capital One's Quicksilver card offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases with no cap or annual fee. Get paid to go shopping? #KaCHING!
Illustrations by Chris Gash.
Casey Bond is a seasoned personal finance writer and currently serves as the Content Director and voice of GOBankingRates.com.