You can have that warm glow of holiday generosity this year and still be kind to your pocketbook.
The holidays test our limits in a variety of ways — including our credit card limits. Regardless of whether, and how much, you're feeling pinched by the economic downturn, it's time to tighten the chains of overspending.
First, have a little talk with the Ghost of Overspending Past, recalling the knot in your gut that came with the credit card bills in January, February and months later. Have you paid off those bills from last year yet? What did it cost you in extra interest and lost sleep? Do you even remember what you bought for people?
Visit the Ghost of Overspending Present and look at how last year's gifts are being used or displayed. Does your friend wear that pricey scarf or did he sell it on eBay? Does your mother display that expensive trinket or is it in the back of her closet?
Travel with the Ghost of Overspending Yet to Come for more knots in your stomach as he walks you silently and ominously through your credit record.
In this tightened credit market, some credit card companies are reducing limits on cards, raising interest rates and slapping fees on customers — sometimes for no reason. But they'll have more reason if you're late on a payment or miss one, and your credit record gets dented.
No one who really cares about you wants you to buy a gift you can't afford. You don't have to be Scrooge, all about extreme hoarding. Remember that in the end, even Scrooge realized that giving is about more than money.
Before you hit the mall in a frenzy, trying to find a gift — any gift — for people on your list, stop and consider some ideas and tips:
• Set a limit on what you can afford to spend this season — on gifts, entertaining, travel, wrapping, mailing — and divide that number among the people on your gift list. Then stick to it.
Maybe you even need to pare down that list. "For someone in a tight financial situation, now is the time to set expectations with the family," said Marty Durbin, president and chief operating officer of First Command Financial Planning.
• Explore your favorite stores on the Internet for ideas and easy cost comparisons.
• If you're thinking about giving a gift card, read the fine print for expiration dates and fees. Consider a gas gift card for a friend who has a long commute or a gift card to the commissary or exchange. Military store gift cards do not expire and carry no hidden fees.
• Think about what the person you're giving to would really want from you. Some people on your list may have everything they need, and your time might be more valuable to them.
Give a relative a "picture of the month" certificate in which you vow to send a picture of the children each month. Or give a "coffee and catch-up" certificate in which you promise to get together for coffee at least once a month. Make some special stationery for a friend whose spouse is deployed, or offer to keep the kids while she goes to the commissary.
• Donate to the person's favorite charity in his name. If your friends give gifts to each other, consider pooling your money for a larger donation instead, especially at a time when some charities are seeing a drop in donations.
• Give a magazine or newspaper subscription. You might find a discount on the perfect periodical at the military exchanges' online Exchange Mall, at www.aafes.com, www.navy-nex.com, www.usmc-mccs.org and www.cg-exchange.com. Compare prices and selection at www.amazon.com. Every time they receive that publication, they'll think of who sent it.
• If you hit the stores, leave the credit cards at home. Take just enough cash to pay for the gifts on your list. We tend to be more aware of what we're spending when we use cash.
• If you do take your credit card with you, be strict with your spending limit. At the very most, spend no more than what you can pay off in January. Keep tabs on what you are spending.
• Stores are enticing you with sales. Impulse buying could lead to spending more than you can afford. Count to 10, maybe even 11 or 12, and think carefully before buying.
"A lot of people pay off Christmas all year," Durbin said, adding that with all the economic uncertainty in the air, "if something comes up a few months from now, you can handle it better if your back is not against the wall with Christmas payments."