MONEY Saving & Budgeting

How I Blew Christmas This Year — And How I’m Resolving to Do It Better Next Year

Christmas aftermath
Getty Images

We went overboard.

My not-quite-2-year-old won Christmas. My wife and I gave him a Radio Flyer wagon, and his aunt bestowed a pop-up mesh castle in which he now holds court next to our dining room table. He got a large toy car from his grandmother, along with a mishmash of wooden toys, rubber blocks and fuzzy puppets from other relatives.

On the first Christmas he was actually able to open presents, the tyke garnered hundreds of dollars’ worth of tributes from a dozen people across four states.

Of course, this is all a bit ridiculous. Not only is my son barely conscious of the concept of presents, but he’ll soon grow tired of any one gift. While he certainly will enjoy having a new truck or two to take to the park, he doesn’t need to be deluged with quite so many entertainment options.

Meanwhile, we could really use the money elsewhere. Mrs. Tepper and I still carry six figures’ worth of student loan debt. We aren’t maxing out our retirement savings and we don’t yet have a down payment for a house. Our rainy day fund could certainly use more heft and we’ve only managed to put aside about a grand in our son’s 529 plan.

To be fair, the lion’s share of the presents came from his grandparents, aunts, and uncles, not from us. But wouldn’t we have been wiser asking them for college savings help rather than another piece of plastic? Certainly — but we wanted him to have a big Christmas this year, full of boxes and bows.

Better Strategy

I’m a journalist at a personal finance publication who writes about saving and budgeting, but even I don’t make every spending decision based on improving my financial security. My New Year’s resolution is to do better, to find a more sound financial footing, so next Christmas won’t hurt as much. Here are three things I plan to focus on for the coming year.

Automate it. One strategy to save more — in a 401(k), your kid’s 529, or in a rainy-day fund — is to take the decision out of your hands. Set up your direct deposit so that a percentage of your paycheck goes straight into retirement or college accounts. That way you can get the ball rolling without having to make a conscious choice to do so every month.

Pay up for failure. Once you’ve established that you want to stow more away, you can make sure that you stick to your goals by signing up for StickK.com. The site, which was developed by Yale economists, lets users put money on the line for any given commitment — helping you feel the sting more acutely if you veer off course. Those who pony up are more than twice as likely to succeed than those who don’t — so I’m going to sign up.

Stay sane. My wife and I generally work 50 hours a week, and spend another 10 or so on trains getting to and from our jobs. We constantly weigh our guilt over not spending “enough” time with our son — whatever that is — against the knowledge that we have to dedicate a large portion of time and attention to work. As a result, we made a choice this year to be less than fiscally responsible. Providing a relatively bountiful Christmas for our son this year was, in reality, a gift for us, for our sanity. This year, however, we’ll each try to work from home a day or two a week — in the hopes that we’ll not only get more family time, but be less inclined to overspend on the holidays to compensate.

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