BOSTON – There's an old joke about holiday fruitcakes, which holds that there really are only a few of them, and that they keep being shipped as a gift from one person to the next, never eaten by anyone.
If you substitute "holiday spending tips" for "fruitcake," that joke probably comes close to the truth.
Each year at this time, seemingly every financial institution issues a list of holiday tips. The lists may have a few subtle differences -- kind of like how some fruitcakes are "cakier" and others "fruitier" -- but there is little doubt that no one in the general public actually consumes these tips, taking them to heart and using them like some appreciated holiday gift.
So when the Consumer Federation of America, Credit Union National Association and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling all suggest developing a holiday spending budget, the advice sounds just a bit formulaic and hollow.
That makes it easy to ignore.
Truth be told, years of chatting with consumers has made it pretty clear that there are two primary types of holiday spenders: There are the ones who don't need these kinds of tips because they already are savvy shoppers concerned about blowing up their financial situation, and there are the ones who don't they need any special saving ideas because they are so busy shopping that they completely ignore the fact that their finances already have blown up.
(There are other, smaller groups too, including folks who have reasonable means and stay within them so that the holidays are manageable, and spending trouble never comes into play.)
So maybe it's time to change how we look at the old saws of holiday finance. Start with a series of questions:
1. Are you better off financially this season than you were last year?
How you approach the holidays is not just a function of what's in your bank account or how much available credit you have, it also might be a matter of your work situation.
Don't just guess at this answer. Studies show that the average household credit-card debt in this country is north of $8,500 and growing. Pull out your bills from a year ago and see if they actually are worse.
Calculate your net worth, which is the total of everything you own minus everything you owe. If you're not ahead of where you were last year (and if you didn't calculate your net worth in 2004, you can estimate it by seeing how much your investment statements and debts have changed in 12 months), that's a sign that you need to be able to afford some savings along with your holiday spending.
2. How much did last year's holiday contribute to the problem?
If you examined your debt picture and found it uglier than a year ago, see if the holidays were a big part of the problem. Countless consumers need months to pay off the debts they run up over the holidays.
But instead of thinking that the debt is paid off, consider how big a percentage of overall debt was created during past holidays.
Say you spent $1,000 on the holidays a year ago and put $5,000 on credit cards over the course of the year; if you only paid off $4,000, it would be easy to think that the holiday debt -- which showed up on January statements -- was not the problem.
The problem is that the holidays amounted to 20% of your credit-card spending, and it's pretty easy to suggest that you couldn't afford to spend that much if your card bills have moved in the wrong direction ever since.
In short, you spent so much of your available money on paying off the holidays that you couldn't pay off everything else; that might not be a "holiday spending problem" in everyone's book, but it probably should be.
3. Has the system I have adhered to worked in the past?
The standard holiday tips boil down to the following (culled and edited from six different organizations that have issued tip sheets in the last two weeks):
Make a holiday budget.
-- Supplement the budget with a shopping list (and then stick to the budget and live off the list).
-- Boost your holiday spending account by cutting down on things like food or entertainment at the end of the year.
-- Look for deals, comparison shop, and do it all early enough that you do not feel rushed to make purchases, because hasty decisions make for wasteful spending.
-- Be creative, and think "homemade" and "different" (the latter apparently being the shorthand description these groups use when advising that instead of buying Grandpa some new pipe tobacco, you could give him coupons he can redeem for you washing and waxing his old Pontiac).
-- Pay with cash whenever possible, and get rid of the holiday debt as quickly as you can, which reduces the spending hangover by getting you "back to normal" quickly.
-- Start saving for next year as soon as the holidays are over this year.
Sure, the advice is formulaic, but if your system didn't work in the past, then sound, traditional thinking should be much tougher to ignore this year. You need the holiday saving tips whether you want them or not.
Finally, consider the savings tip that no one seems to come up with at this time of year: Give fewer gifts. If you've had a bad year, if you simply are at a point where a gift is more of an obligation than a loving gesture, call the intended recipient and make a deal to reduce the giving. Support a favorite charity, or agree to curb your debt situation together.
It certainly is better than going deeper into debt over something like a fruitcake.