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The answer to holiday overspending

This simple tactic will keep you at (or under) budget -- and move you closer to your dreams.

By Donna_Freedman Dec 5, 2012 5:16PM
Logo: Santa Claus (Corbis)Ben Woolsey of offers a tactic to keep you under budget during the holidays: Remember the money you already spent.

Specifically, he suggests putting a list of all current financial obligations in your wallet. "When tempted to overspend, remind yourself of what you owe," says Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research.

That's a good idea, but I'd like to take it further. In a post called "Goal-oriented groceries," I suggested a simple way to stick to your budget: Start each list with a dream.

Seriously: At the head of the list write some personal finance goal, such as "pay off consumer debt." Then write "bread, eggs, milk," and write the goal again. Add a few more grocery items, and reiterate your money ambition.

This will work in any store. Thus I propose "goal-oriented holiday shopping."

Instead of keeping that roster of money owies in your wallet, as Woolsey suggests, write it right on your shopping list -- and include a few dreams along with "rent" or "car payment." Use a pen to write out the gifts and a Sharpie to write down your obligations/goals, so they can't be ignored or crossed out.

Staying on track

Don't usually make a gift list? Do it from now on, because shopping without a plan is not smart. Ever gone to the store with a $50 food budget and wound up spending $75 thanks to impulse purchases of chips, cookies or craft beer? 

If you find freshly baked chocolate chip cookies hard to resist, you probably don't have much chance against recorded holiday songs. As noted in "Why we lose it on Black Friday," retailers know exactly how to push a consumer's buttons.
That's where goal-oriented holiday shopping can help. Having "student loans" or "Roth IRA" right next to "slippers for Mom, gloves for Dad" reminds you of other obligations or, yes, other dreams.

It's easy to overspend if you're excited about the holiday (see "pushing our buttons, above"). It's even easier if you're tired and/or rushed.

Speaking of which: All you habitual procrastinators need to make your goal-oriented shopping lists now. Last-minute shopping costs more due to:
  • Eleventh-hour panic. The store's closing in 45 minutes -- no time for price comparison.
  • Slimmer selections. If they're fresh out of Dearforms and Isotoners, you'll have to take whatever you can get -- which might mean spending more.
  • Shipping costs. Pony up for the overnight service, chump.
Overspending will take you even further into the hole. So make that list and move closer to your financial goals, whether that's vanquishing your student loans, saving for retirement or replacing tires so bald they look like inner tubes.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.