The holiday shopping rush is on. Paying with a credit card makes it is easy to be in the spirit of buying and giving without paying attention to how much money is being spent. But January credit card bills bring the cold reality of debt and interest payments. You could be paying for Christmas 2012 long after the gifts are forgotten.
Here are ten tips to make this an affordable holiday season:
1) Make a budget and a shopping list. Start with what you spent last year and then keep a record of all gift purchases and holiday expenses--from postage stamps to the food for the office party. It is hard for shoppers to make a budget and easy to underestimate their spending. The average holiday shopper will spend $749 on gifts, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. The survey shows that people will spend $421 on children, parents, and other relatives, $75 on friends, $23 on co-workers, $28 on others, $100 on food and candy, $28 on greeting cards and $19 on flowers.
2) Change your shopping habits now before you get into the spirit of the season. If you can't afford to pay off your credit card in November, then you can't afford to add a lot more to it in December. Generosity to friends or the perfect gift for the family are not good reasons to put yourself deeper into debt. If you must use a credit card to pay for Christmas, make sure you can pay it off by Easter.
3) The best way to stick to your budget and avoid impulse spending is to pay in cash. Pulling cash out of your wallet or purse and handing it to someone else is painful, and a reminder that the less you spend, the more you can keep.
4) Before making your first holiday purchase, verify the credit limit on every credit card you use. If you are not aware your limit has been lowered, you can unknowingly exceed your credit limit. This can cause problems, including a lower credit score and a significantly higher APR.
5) If you are looking for a new credit card, this may be a good time to apply. If the card has a 0 percent introductory rate for purchases for a year or longer, you can use your card as a free loan for holiday spending. This is recommended only if you pay it off before the interest charges begin.
6) Pay attention to the price of the item after you purchase it. If the price drops during a specified time and you paid with a credit card, some issuers may reimburse the difference. MasterCard's Price Protection offers this for a period of 60 days; Citi Price Rewind offers this for 30 days. You may have to register the purchase online as well as keep your store and credit card receipts as proof of purchase.
7) If you are going to carry a balance, contact your issuer and ask for a lower rate. They may not be as willing to negotiate as they were several years ago, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
8) Avoid use of convenience checks that regularly appear in your mailbox this time of year. These promotional checks look like free money, with 0 percent offers in bold print. These offers may seem like a tempting way to pay for holiday shopping but read the terms and conditions to know exactly what you are getting. There is typically a 3 or 4 percent fee for using these checks and they can charge a higher interest rate.
9) Use your rewards points for holiday shopping. These can be used to buy gift cards with many retailers.
10) Pay attention to partner programs. Most credit card issuers have a partner program that offers discounts or bonuses for online purchases with certain companies. The programs vary by issuer, but the partners could be stores where you already shop. Discover turns $20 rewards into $25 gift cards. Citi gives an additional 1 to 5 percent cash back when you shop at their online partners.