How to Balance Your Children’s Expectations and Financial Obligations During the Holidays

Financial Advice By: Carmen Rita Wong

Q: I’m going to be honest, the holidays are a scary time for me, financially.  I am a single mom with three children and I want to be able to give my children the best holiday possible and I definitely don’t want to disappoint them, but I also need to make sure that all of our bills are paid on time, too. I’ve read your post on using credit card rewards, but I have never owned a credit card and they are a little intimidating. Are there other ways that I can get more bang for my buck when it comes to holiday spending?  I know that you’re a mother yourself, so do you have any tips on how to balance the expectations of my children and still meet my financial obligations?

The holidays are a tough time for anyone on a tight budget. But, credit cards are not the way to go if you’re going to use them to spend money you don’t have. Credit card rewards are only worthwhile if you pay your bill in full and on time, before interest kicks in. If you carry a balance, those rewards go ‘poof’ in value!

This year, if you’ve got a small amount to stretch across those all of those kids, give them the best gift of all, the financial security of not going into debt to buy ‘stuff.’ That may seem like a hard concept to relate to your kids, but do not be afraid to let them know that Santa is on a tight budget this year so gifts will be limited– not because they’ve been ‘naughty,’ but because even Santa has a ceiling.

Of course, when shopping, you should max out tools such as price comparison sites and coupons. Some of my traditional favorites are PriceGrabber.com, RetailMeNot.com and FatWallet.com. And an app like RedLaser lets you scan barcodes and comparison shop right in the store.

But–and this is vital–I can tell you from nearly two decades of experience in this field that tools and sales are great, but by far the biggest way to save money over the holidays is to make sure that your limits are just that: limits. Set these amounts first, before you shop. For example, how much do you have for the holidays as a whole and then how much will go toward holiday travel, holiday gifts for non-family members or holiday cards? Then how much will you spend on yourself (we all tend to do this) and how much on each of your children?

Write this all down or do as I do, build a spreadsheet and enter the limits first. Then, as you shop and plan, enter what you’ve bought and how much you’ve spent. Take the list with you when you shop or have it on your cell phone so it’s always in hand and treat it like a contract with yourself– no violating it!

And next year, start saving for the holidays early. I usually start holiday planning when it comes to my budget as soon as school starts in September. You can even start putting aside money into a separate savings account with the start of the New Year.

We all want to make our children happy and give them a wonderful holiday season, but remember to keep yourself in good financial shape. This is one gift more valuable than anything Santa leaves under the tree.

Carmen Rita Wong is the President and Founder of Malecon Productions. She is the former co-creator and host of the only national, daily personal finance television show, On the Money, on CNBC. Carmen was also the co-founder and former President of an all-female financial planning firm and is currently Assistant Industry Professor of Finance and Risk Engineering at NYU Polytech.

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