Broke Millennial Erin Lowry knows the holidays can get expensive. Here’s how to budget for gifts and travel this holiday season without going into debt.
December, we meet again. Despite recurring every year (with ample time to prepare), the holidays manage to be a foe to many wallets. Because I walk a delicate line between defender of my net worth and an ardent gift-giver, Christmas can really be my Achilles heel if I’m not prepared. In order to avoid going broke spoiling my loved ones, I’ve created a six-pronged strategy to protect my money.
1. Save up credit card rewards
Credit card rewards almost completely subsidize my holiday shopping—and holiday flights, too. My strategy is to let my card bonuses accumulate throughout the year and then—bam—I have money to spend on Christmas presents without spiking my budget or raiding my savings.
Obviously, the cards get paid off on time and in full each month—otherwise the rewards are useless because I’d be paying interest around revolving debt.
2. Get cash back from Ebates and Mr. Rebates
Every penny counts when budgeting for the holidays, so I pad my bottom line by earning the most cash back possible. Sites like Ebates and Mr. Rebates offer cash back just for starting your online shopping at their portals, rather than at the specific retailers themselves. It sounds too good to be true, but I’ve been using both for several years. The way it works is Ebates and Mr. Rebates both get referral fees from sites like Amazon, Macy’s, and Sephora when they send over a customer. Then Ebates and Mr. Rebates cuts me, the customer, a portion of that referral fee as an incentive to click through.
Unfortunately, not every store participates, and often with sites like Amazon it’s a really niche (like 6 percent cash back on children’s toys or women’s clothing). However, if I can get 2 percent back on the makeup my sister wants from Sephora for Christmas then—hey, it still saved me some money.
The best part is when I can stack cash rewards. For example, I click through Ebates to get to Amazon and earn, for example, 3 percent cash back. I then pay for the Amazon item with a credit card that earns an additional 5 percent cash back, so the whole purchase got me 8 percent cash back and thus became a little cheaper.
3. Give time
Like many Grownups, I struggle to figure out what to give my dad for holidays and birthdays. As he jokingly (but sort of seriously) told me, “you can’t really afford anything I’d want.” Truthfully, I’m not buying my dad a new set of golf clubs or a drone—but I have figured out something affordable that he loves: my time.
Like many 20-something Millennials, I don’t live close to my parents and only see them a few times a year. I’ve discovered their favorite gifts are just dedicated time doing something they enjoy. Hitting a bucket of golf balls with my dad or running a 5k together is a memory we can share—instead of getting him another knickknack he doesn’t really need.
4. Check local deals before buying
Similar to offering the gift of time, I love to give a shared experience to friends. Last year I got my best friend a walking tour of NYC chocolate shops. Instead of purchasing the gift directly, I checked Groupon first and ended up getting a better tour at a cheaper price.
Groupon and similar sites can also provide inspiration when you want to gift an experience, but aren’t quite sure which one.
One year I filtered it to food experiences in Charlotte, North Carolina, and ended up gifting my parents a sushi-making class for my dad’s birthday. Never would have thought to do that myself.
5. Delay giving to take advantage of sales
My favorite way to save money is to not exchange gifts until after Christmas. Delaying the actual date of swapping presents until December 26 or later means I get to take advantage of holiday fire sales. Stores tend to slash prices to clear shelves for next year’s updated versions. Electronics are frequently deeply discounted. This is also why you see car dealers advertising big end-of-year sales—not that I’d be gifting anyone a car!
6. Start prepping ahead of time
Consider this a bonus option: Start prepping early. One of my savings accounts funds gift giving. It’s typically earmarked for weddings, but I also repurpose it around the holidays if my credit card rewards don’t cover what I plan to buy loved ones. That means I’m saving for Christmas year round, and it doesn’t blow my budget.
Erin Lowry is a Millennial personal finance expert, speaker, and author of the book BROKE MILLENNIAL: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together. Based on the successful blog, the book is a choose-your-own-adventure guide to personal finance that uses wry humor and real-life examples to demystify the basics of money for Millennials. Lowry lives in New York City with her spunky rescue dog Mosby.
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