Personal Finance

How to stay out of debt this holiday season

Key Points
  • Between buying gifts, booking travel and attending holiday parties, there are plenty of ways to splurge in the months ahead.
  • Americans are already in the red.
  • Here are some steps you can take to ensure you don't end up even deeper in debt.
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'Tis the season to spend a lot of money.

Between buying gifts, booking travel and attending holiday parties, there are plenty of ways to splurge in the months ahead, regardless of whether Americans can afford it.

The National Retail Federation said it expects holiday retail sales to rise between 3.8% and 4.2% over 2018 to a total of $727.9 billion to $730.7 billion. A separate survey found that shoppers are expected to spend 5% more this year than they did last year.

However, outstanding consumer debt already exceeds $4 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

In addition, the impact from tariffs, some of which took effect Sept. 1, could add to the holiday tab.

Certain goods, including clothing, shoes, toys and household appliances, will be more expensive this year than they would have been otherwise.

One estimate prepared for the NRF found that tariffs could cost Americans $4.4 billion for apparel, $3.7 billion for toys, $2.5 billion for footwear and $1.6 billion for household appliances.

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That's a hefty additional expense considering that last year, Americans racked up more than $1,000 in holiday debt by the end of the season, according to MagnifyMoney's annual post-holiday debt survey.

Less than half of shoppers, or 42%, said they would pay off that debt in three months or less. More said it would take five months or more to pay it off, MagnifyMoney found.

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This year, there are some steps you can take to ensure you don't end up even deeper in the red.

Start a savings plan: Begin reducing expenses to improve your cash flow, said Shelly-Ann Eweka, a financial advisor with financial services firm TIAA. That means skipping some dinners out, weekend travel or other entertainment, she said — and "start as soon as possible."

Once you've created a separate slush fund, consider keeping it going for next year. If you put away $100 to $200 a month, that can be your holiday budget for 2020, Eweka said.

Create a budget: Write out a list of presents you plan to buy and other holiday expenses, such as a vacation or trip to see your family, then research prices and deals.

"When is the best time to buy that particular item?" said Jacqui Kearns, the chief brand officer at Affinity Federal Credit Union. "Planning is the key to all of this."

For example, the optimal window for booking affordable holiday flights is from now until late October.

Skip over-the-top gifts: Another great way to keep costs down is to forgo some big-ticket items, according to the experts.

"It's a wonderful time of year to celebrate," said Kearns, but "you don't always have to buy something."

"Consider other forms of gifts," Eweka advised, such as babysitting, baking or volunteering.

And never feel pressured to buy something you can't afford, she added. "Stay committed to your long-term financial goals."

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