Don't pull a Clark Griswold with your holiday bonus this year

It's time to start budgeting for your year-end bonus.

"We don't have a lot of hard numbers yet, but the economic indicators are showing that it's likely that bonuses are going to be good this year," said Andrew Challenger, vice president with outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

He points to unemployment rates at or below 4 percent in many markets.

"When there's a job shortage, employers really need to compete to retain, and they are starting to do that with compensation," he said.

Three-quarters of companies plan to give employees a cash bonus this year, up from 67 percent last year, according to a new survey from staffing firm Accounting Principals. The average bonus is up, too, from $858 last year to $1,081 this year, said Kim Gottschalk, senior regional vice president for the firm.

The survey polled 500 hiring managers in September, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. Accounting Principals specializes in accounting and finance positions, but the surveyed HR managers come from a variety of fields.


Expectations are mixed on the outliers, Wall Street bonuses. Last year, the average fell 9 percent to a three-year low of $146,200 — "reflecting a challenging year in the financial markets," according to the New York state comptroller's annual report.

In its third-quarter earnings report this week, Goldman Sachs said it set aside $3.21 billion during the third quarter for salary and benefits expenses, including year-end bonuses. That's 36 percent more than for the same time last year.

But earlier this year, a study from compensation consultant Johnson Associates estimated that difficult market conditions could result in a 5 percent to 25 percent decrease in bonuses for those in investment banking, and a 5 percent to 15 percent drop for hedge fund employees. In their report, only retail and commercial banking workers could expect a bigger bonus, with an increase of up to 5 percent.

Of course, some industries are more apt than others to offer year-end bonuses. As a 2015 Bloomberg BNA report on bonuses put it, "Workers in the nonbusiness sector (e.g., health care, education, government), larger establishments and union shops should not get their hopes up."

There's a lot left up in the air about year-end bonuses — Will you get one? How much will it be? — but it's smart to have a plan for how you'd use it, said Susan Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. A plan will also serve you well for tax refunds, or if your job entails commissions or lump-sum freelance payments.

"Otherwise there's a tendency for new money like that to burn a hole," she said. "A personal plan lowers the impulsivity of the anticipation and the receipt of the money."

Bradley's rule of thumb: Immediately set aside a portion of an incoming lump sum for taxes. Allocate another slice for savings goals like retirement. Keep some of the remainder as a cash cushion for current and upcoming financial obligations, she said, and a little "for a grand-old time."

The exact budgeting will depend on the details of your finances, she said. Current needs — like paying down credit-card debt or anticipating a home purchase — might shift the spending and saving buckets one way or another.

Try to avoid repeating a year-end bonus mistake a la Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." He makes an advance payment to install a swimming pool in his backyard, only to be presented with a Jelly of the Month Club membership instead. Don't make big purchases in anticipation of that bonus, or commit to a particular expense, until you actually have the money.

"You have to watch the future spending," Bradley said. "You don't want everybody waiting with their hand out when this comes in."