MONEY holiday shopping

MONEY Experts Chat: Smart Holiday Shopping

Have you started your holiday shopping? If you’re like most people, the answer is “No.” Good. That means you still have time to plan your budget carefully, unearth the best deals, and keep yourself out of financial hot water.

Holidays and overspending go hand in hand. According to a recent report by the credit bureau TransUnion, the typical consumer charges nearly 40% more on credit cards in December than he or she does the other 11 months of the year. And that can lead to a debt hangover that takes months to recover from. Don’t let that happen to you.

Join MONEY magazine and personal finance website LearnVest on Thursday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. eastern time (1 p.m. pacific) to discuss smart holiday spending. Our experts will answer your questions about how to budget and save money during the holidays — and still get to enjoy the season.

The Experts:

  • Alexa von Tobel is the founder and CEO of LearnVest.com (@LearnVest), a leading personal finance website, and the author of the upcoming book Financially Fearless: The LearnVest Program for Taking Control of Your Money.
  • Diane Harris (@dianeharris) is the executive editor of MONEY. She frequently edits family money stories and has written extensively about holiday spending and kids.
  • Kristen Bellstrom () is a senior editor at MONEY, where she edits travel, technology, real estate, and spending stories.

The Topics:

During the hour-long discussion, our experts can weigh in on:

  1. Holiday Budgeting: How to figure out how much you can afford to spend, stick to that budget for the entire season, and avoid the credit card debt trap.
  2. Keeping a Lid on the Cost of Gifts: Tricks to find savings, the ideal times and places to shop, and the best ways to pay.
  3. Talking to Your Children: How do you set reasonable expectations for how much you’ll spend? And how do you talk to your family about keeping down the costs of gifts?
  4. Making the Season More Meaningful: What you can do to make the holidays feel less commercial.
  5. Holiday Travel Tips: Strategies to limit travel costs during this busy time.
  6. After the Holidays: What’s the etiquette on returns? Have you factored in the hidden costs?

How to Join:

  • Just hop onto Twitter on Thursday, Nov. 21 at 4pm EST/1 pm PST
  • Follow @MONEY, where we will be moderating the chat and sharing your great responses
  • Ask a question by including the hashtag #HolidayChat
  • Watch it all unfold by searching #HolidayChat on Twitter or TweetChat

We look forward to hearing from you via the #HolidayChat hashtag on Thursday!

Find MONEY on Facebook. Follow MONEY on Twitter.

MONEY

Tighten up Your Holiday Spending Budget

This time of year, you’re bombarded with the message that it’s better to give than to receive.

When the Visa bill comes in January, however, you may be wishing you were a little less generous. Last year 17% of holiday shoppers with incomes over $75,000 exceeded the budget they’d set for themselves, according to a survey by Bankrate.com.

Blame it on heightened emotional vulnerability, says psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“There’s a lot of guilt and social comparison in holiday shopping,” she explains, adding that people often compensate by exercising their purchasing muscles. What’s more, “if you see everyone out having fun while spending, you mimic the behavior,” says Mary Gresham, a psychologist specializing in financial issues.

Want to beat your psychology and that post-holiday hangover? Simply use these strategies to get the names crossed off your list — without crossing into the red.

Before you go shopping

Make your list… Start with the maximum you want to spend — in total — this season. Then compile a list of all those you expect to buy gifts for and other stuff you plan to purchase (like food, cards, and decorations), suggests Mike Piershale, a financial planner in Crystal Lake, Ill. Divide the amount among your list.

Related: How do I set a budget I can stick to?

Beginning with the total budget anchors your shopping experience, so you’re less likely to look back with major regret.

…and check it twice. Don’t love that you’re left with $10 to spend on Aunt Dot?

Look for ways to cull your list. Call family members now and suggest drawing names for gifts or donating to a shared cause instead, says Gresham.

Do you participate in gift exchanges at work, say, or with your book club? Maybe this is the year to opt out. Or propose volunteering together or having a potluck.

Supplement with service. Rather than bust your budget, add something more valuable to the present you bought: the gift of your time and talents.

You might pledge to help your brother chop firewood, for example, or to babysit a cousin’s kid. Create a certificate detailing the service and hold your recipient to redeeming it. Chances are, whatever you do will be the most memorable part of your gift.

When you’re ready for retail

Start off right. Get a decent night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and hit the gym before you go shopping.

“When you’re stressed, you don’t make good spending choices,” warns Leslie Greenman, a St. Louis financial adviser.

Take a day off from work to hit the mall. Fewer crowds mean less pressure, and less chance you’ll be caught up in the buying frenzy, says James A. Roberts, author of “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy.”

Take the long view. Run a retirement projection just before you shop. Or forecast the cost of your child’s college education.

“Anything you can do to put yourself in a long-term mentality,” says Roberts. You’ll see in plain numbers why it’s important to stick to your budget. Each time you’re tempted to splurge, force yourself to think about what you’ll give up.

By reframing the question as “‘What am I not getting?,’ you end up thinking over the decision from more perspectives,” says Scott Huettel, head of Duke University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science.

Plan two trips. Buy a $1,000 HDTV, and suddenly a $100 pair of jeans looks like a steal.

“When you start out with big decisions, your brain has a harder time discriminating with smaller decisions,” says Huettel. His solution: Buy smaller items during one shopping trip and save big purchases for another.

Hamstring yourself. You may say you’re going to spend $50 on your sister-in-law.

“But the plan isn’t binding — unless you take an action to commit yourself,” says Huettel.

The best move: Carry cash only. Leave credit cards at home so you can’t spend more than you’ve got. Or buy a gift card, which allows you to spend exactly what you’d budgeted.

Worried that’s not personal enough? Add that gift of service or bake a batch of homemade cookies.

Remember, says Gresham, “most relationships are improved by time being invested in them, not things.”

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