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9 Ways to Keep Your Holiday Spending on Track

It’s never too early to start budgeting for the holidays. Give yourself the gift of a holiday spending plan this year and sail through the season worry free.

Looking forward to the winter holiday season, you can imagine all the fun that lies ahead: relaxing time away from work, parties with friends and family, attending holiday events and shows, gift giving and receiving, and perhaps even a vacation. Of course, all that holiday fun can add up to some serious money.

Last year, the typical American spent more than $935 during the holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation. That astonishing amount includes gifts for others, self-spending, food, flowers, decorations and greeting cards, but not travel or entertainment.

The bottom line is that it’s never too early to start planning for what can be a major expense. You’ll enjoy the upcoming season more if you take smart steps like these now.

Set a goal

It’s easy to overspend if you add names at the last minute, so make creating a comprehensive list your first step in financially savvy gift giving. Start with family and friends. Then add your close school contacts, including fellow teachers, trusted aides, administrators and even some treasured parent volunteers. Round out the list with people outside your school you want to acknowledge: the professionals and service providers who help you throughout the year.

Next, assign a realistic dollar amount for each person. Add in all the other things you expect to purchase, including travel, food for special meals and tickets to any events like concerts or the ballet. That will give you the total amount you need to set aside.

Don’t forget: If your school holds holiday drives for charities that you plan or are expected to participate in, include those “gifts” so you won’t bust your budget.

This workbook can help you create a realistic household budget and includes a gift tracker.

Look for smart ways to save

Smart choices now will add up and make it easy for you to indulge this winter. Keep your goal in mind as you head out each day, and look for easy ways to cut back on everyday expenses. Trim just $10 from your weekly grocery budget and you will sock away at least $40 in savings each month. Watch a movie at home this weekend instead of going to the theater, and you can earmark the $15 or more you save for holiday spending.

You can also take advantage of new banking tech (like Qapital or Digit) that makes saving nearly effortless. Qapital is a free app that funnels money into a Qapital savings account based on “rules” you set up. For example, set a budget for shopping trips or special events. If you come in under budget, the app will automatically transfer what you saved into your account. Qapital’s most popular rule is to round up the change every time you make a purchase. The average user saves $44 per month with this rule.

Digit is another option. Like Qapital, it’s free and it transfers money to a special savings account. But it’s a web-based platform that communicates with you via text messaging.

Rethink your giving strategy

A white elephant gift exchange, whether with work friends or family, can be a fun and economical twist on traditional gift giving. Each person brings a nicely wrapped item, and participants take turns selecting a gift. People can choose one from the remaining gifts or “steal” an already opened one. Some groups also identify an inexpensive theme for their gifts, such as ornaments or homemade cookies.

Remember, too, that while “re-gifting” has a bad reputation in some circles, it can be a smart strategy (especially for all those teacher gifts). To make it work, stick with these guidelines:

  • Re-gift only unopened and unused items.
  • Remove all original tags.
  • Make sure nothing is personally inscribed by the original giver.
  • Repackage each gift nicely.

Set savings aside

Some banks and credit unions let you set up special no-cost accounts you can use specifically for holiday savings. For example, Nationwide’s “holiday club” offers consumers an interest-bearing account that matures in October. If your bank doesn’t offer these types of accounts, check out SmartyPig, an online bank that helps you save for specific goals and track your progress.

Of course, you don’t need a special account; a regular savings account will work fine. Just make a point to set up automatic transfers that regularly shift small amounts of money from your checking to your savings account. That’s the key to building up savings quickly.

You can start setting aside holiday money now in an online savings account just for NEA members.

Look for technology that helps you shop smart

You can find apps (like Ibotta and Ebates) that help you turn your shopping list into found money. For example, Ibotta gives you cash, not points, back at more than 500,000 major stores nationwide. And it offers three ways to earn that cash: Send a receipt, link a loyalty card or shop within the app.

Other apps, for major retailers such as Amazon and Target, help you compare prices, track sales and access instant savings.

Shop early to save even more

Holiday shopping once started the day after Thanksgiving. These days, it can pay to shop far earlier than that. In 2016, major retailers such as Kohl’s and Old Navy offered special coupons and cash-back deals the week before Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, online retailers, notably Amazon, offer special sales leading up to Black Friday and spot sales at various times of the year. It may be worth it to sign up now for notifications from your favorite stores.

Find the best travel deals

If air travel is a major part of your holiday season, make a budget friendly plan for when to book your flight. A May 2017 study by CheapAir.com analyzed about 921 million flights within the United States and found that the best prices are offered, on average, 54 days before the flight. If that seems too close for comfort, try to book in what the company calls “the Peace of Mind” Zone, 113 to 196 days before the flight. However, you may pay an additional premium of $20, on average, for your ticket.

And no matter when you book, using an online service like Kayak is a smart way to make sure you get the best deals on all kinds of travel expenses. Take advantage of tools like Kayak’s Flexible Date and Anytime options and the Explore feature.

Cash in on credit card reward points

You can earn so many different kinds of rewards using credit cards, it’s a mistake to overlook them when it comes time for holiday expenses. From airline points to cash rebates or gift cards “purchased” with points, there’s a reward for everyone.

But keeping track of those rewards and all the options can be intimidating. An app like Wallaby can help you effortlessly maximize rewards by identifying which card will benefit you the most for each transaction.

Use your NEA member benefits

Don’t forget the special shopping discounts available exclusively to NEA members through the NEA Click & Save program. You’ll find discounts on an array of purchases, from shoes and clothing, to books, electronics, movie tickets and more. As of April 2017, NEA members have saved a collective total of $12 million!

Stock up on snacks, meal prep items and more with your Costco membership.

In addition, NEA members can take advantage of several money-smart credit card options. For example, the NEA Cash Rewards Card offers a special bonus offer. Act now, and you could use it to cross items off your own holiday wish list.

And as you make your holiday travel plans, don't forget to check out hotel, flight and cruise deals through NEA Click & Save Travel, travel package deals through NEA Vacations and special NEA car rental discounts.

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