Ready or not, the holidays are coming.
With American pocketbooks and investment accounts under pressure, the approaching holidays -- particularly how to pay for them -- are quickly becoming yet another thing to worry about.
Don't push this looming dilemma to the back of your minds. You still have plenty of time to start saving some cash to finance your giving this season. After all, now is hardly a good time to wrack up extra debt (not that going into debt for the holidays was ever a good idea). With the instability of today's job, financial and consumer markets, you shouldn't do anything that would throw your finances off kilter -- and debt certainly increases your personal insecurity.
"Considering the rough economic times in which we're living, it is critical that consumers control their spending," says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "Paying for purchases with cash is ideal."
It's not an unrealistic goal. I've collected six simple ideas to illustrate how easy it can be to find extra money in your budget to avoid debt this holiday season. (And you won't have to eat Ramen noodles by candlelight for the next two months, either.) Employ these tricks, and you could have $1,000 saved by mid-December:
1. Adjust your tax withholding. The average tax refund last year was about $2,700. If you got a refund, that means you paid Uncle Sam too much money! Keep it for yourself to pad your holiday fund instead. You simply need to change your tax withholding by filing a new W-4 with your employer's human resources department. To find out how many withholdings you should be claiming, try our Easy-To-Use Tax Withholding Calculator. The changes will go into effect on your next paycheck.
TWO MONTHS OF SAVINGS = $450 (based on the average refund)
2. Take fewer trips to the grocery store. Making bigger shopping trips less often will cut down on your impulse buys. Almost half of all shoppers go to the store three or four times per week. If you spend $10 each trip on impulse buys, that adds up to at least $120 extra each month. Set foot in the grocery store only once a week, however, and you'd keep impulse purchases to $40 per month. That cuts your spending by $80 per month, not to mention all the money you'll save on gas. Shop with a list and think about what you'll need for the week in advance.
TWO MONTHS OF SAVINGS = $160
3. Kick a habit. Little routines can add up to big bucks. Perhaps it's those three Cokes a day, your lunches at the sandwich shop next to the office, or your daily runs to your neighborhood coffee shop or workplace vending machine. Instead, bring a bottle of water, snacks and lunch from home -- and make your own darn latte! Plus, read your magazines and newspapers online and walk the extra block to your bank's ATM to avoid paying the out-of-network fee. The trick is to look at your lifestyle and not let small conveniences trump your will to save.
Feeling particularly motivated? Look at bigger habits in your life that are costing you, such as gambling, smoking or even shopping as a hobby.
TWO MONTHS OF SAVINGS = $200
4. Eat out one less time per month. Dining out can be a real budget buster. But there's no need to go cold turkey. Resolving to eat at home just one time more per month than usual can make a big difference. Considering a meal at a casual dining restaurant costs about $20 per person, you would spend $80 for a family of four to eat out. Instead, you could cook a family meal at home for less than $20 total, saving you at least $60 each month. (See more ways to cut food costs.)
TWO MONTHS OF SAVINGS = $120
5. Put on a sweater. For every degree you lower your thermostat, you save 5% off your heating bill, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. So on a $300-per-month bill, dropping your thermostat just two degrees and donning a sweater will save you $30 a month.
TWO MONTHS OF SAVINGS = $60
6. Examine your phone and cable use. Do you really need all those cable channels? Drop your premium channels and you could save $15 per month or more.
Then there's your phone bill... Do you really need caller ID? Call waiting? Voice mail? Internet service on your cell phone? Dropping one or more of these extras could shave $5 to $50 off your phone bill. You might even consider dropping your landline phone service altogether in favor of your cell or a free online service like Skype. That could save another $20 to $50 per month.
TWO MONTHS OF SAVINGS = $100
TOTAL SAVINGS FOR HOLIDAY SHOPPING = $1,090
A personalized savings plan
These six simple ideas only scratch the surface. There are dozens of other ways you can cut your spending for the next couple months, from re-shopping your auto insurance to getting a rewards credit card to finding cheaper movie rentals. Keep up the strategies year-round to pay down existing debt and to get yourself on more solid financial footing. See Save Money on Practically Everything to craft a savings strategy that fits your lifestyle.
And next year, plan ahead for an even more painless approach. For instance, I set up an automatic savings program with my online bank to sock away $40 per month into a separate savings account I reserve only for holiday spending. Come December, I always have close to $500 waiting to soften the financial blow of the season. And because the $40-per-month is such a small amount -- and it's taken out automatically -- I don't even miss it.