Yes, it's only October, and I'm as disturbed as you to see Santa Claus next to the Halloween candy on store shelves (lay off the Reese's Pieces, St. Nick). But the holiday season is just two months away. I'm sorry to bring it up, but it's time to figure out your holiday gift-giving and merriment budget.
Initial holiday shopping surveys indicate that consumers are buying earlier, planning ahead, and may be better prepared this season to shop within budget than in year's past. "Consumers are planning, creating lists and collecting coupons," said James Russo, vice president, global consumer insights at Nielsen. Yet one in three respondents reported that they have "no spare cash" going into the holiday season.
Fall into that category? Consider the following strategies for spreading holiday cheer without accumulating debt:
-- With two months to go, examine your budget for a place or two to trim. Cancel that gym membership you never use, or go on a restaurant-free diet for a month. Come up with a (legal) moneymaking scheme or two. Maybe your junk is on someone else's holiday wish list. Consider Craigslist, or use Facebook to tell your friends about items for sale. Sell your babysitting or tech support services.
-- Determine how much money you can afford to save between now and December, and track your progress online with a tool like www.mint.com, which has a holiday spending goal feature.
-- If you worry about whittling away your newfound cash unless you sequester it from your checking account, open an online savings account. Smartypig.com is a great choice, since you are rewarded with cash back when you trade your savings for a participating retailer's gift card.
-- Struggling to come up with cash? Maybe you have another currency lying around. I'm talking the frequent flier miles, credit card points, and other loyalty rewards that consumers mindlessly accumulate and often forget to use. Each household belongs to an average of 14.1 loyalty programs, according to 2010 research from Colloquy, a Cincinnati-based loyalty marketing firm. Many of these programs have online malls where you can redeem points for merchandise, gift cards, and magazine subscriptions.
-- Maybe you're sitting on a gift card from last year. Unused gift cards with a thoughtful note are my favorite re-gifts, a practice that I think is acceptable if done properly, especially in this economy. Make sure the gift card isn't so old that it's expired, the balance hasn't been nicked by fees and the store hasn't gone out of business.
-- And don't give a spa day gift card to Grandpa, unless he likes that kind of thing. If the gift card doesn't suit a single person on your list, sell it instead. Several sites including www.plasticjungle.com and www.giftcardrescue.com offer cash for your gift card balance. Both boast that they buy gift cards for as much as 90 percent of face value.
-- For consumers who have spent one January too many regretting their holiday debt, there's layaway. Wal-Mart is bringing back the old-fashioned payment plan service in mid-October, responding to demand from consumers who are shut out or shying away from credit cards.
Layaway programs typically require a down payment and charge a small service fee for the convenience of setting aside goods for you. Toys 'R' Us, Kmart and Sears are a few of the retailers that offer layaway. Best Buy offers layaway at some stores. Money is tight and you've exhausted your options? Here's my philosophy: If you are close enough to someone to give them a gift, you should be able to have a candid conversation about your financial situation. Come up with another meaningful way to celebrate the season without spending money you don't have.
If you know you're going to go into debt to keep holiday traditions in place, at least go into it knowing how much financial damage you've done. Check out the Scrooge-O-Meter calculator, which tells you how long it will take to pay off a holiday debt, at www.lssmn.org/scrooge. Decide how much debt you are comfortable accumulating and come up with a plan to quickly pay it off, so you aren't haunted by the ghost of Christmas past.