8/20/2012 2:15 PM ET|
7 biggest holiday money wasters
Not every holiday tradition is worth the money, and some richly deserve to be scuttled. Whether it's gift wrap or a Secret Santa gift exchange, here are some of the prime candidates.
The great thing about holiday traditions is that you don't have to think much about them. You just do them, because it's that time of year.
But some holiday traditions deserve a closer look. They don't add nearly enough to your holiday enjoyment to justify their cost -- and some of them actually detract from your enjoyment.
So consider giving these money wasters the boot this year:
1. The blowout holiday dinner
You can easily spend way too much on a meal that will be digested and forgotten in just a few hours. With a little care and planning, you can host a special meal that won't eat through your pocketbook, said Stephanie Nelson, a grocery expert and the creator of CouponMom.com.
First, pick your main dish carefully. Grocery stores often sell turkeys, hams and some types of beef below their cost as so-called loss leaders to get people into stores.
"Traditional dishes makes sense because the grocery stores put the ingredients on loss leader," Nelson said. "You're not going to get a good deal on a goose or a duck or something more exotic. They're not going to put that on sale."
Even on sale, though, a beef roast will set you back $3 a pound, and gourmet grocers can charge five or six times that amount. Contrast that with the price of turkey, which you can often score for less than $1 a pound. In the past, Nelson has scooped up a couple of frozen turkeys on after-Thanksgiving sales for just 29 cents a pound.
If you want to serve beef, consider a stew, gumbo or goulash that will serve a crowd without slaughtering your pocketbook. If it's got to be a roast, consider buying it from a warehouse club. Such outlets typically offer "higher quality at a lower cost," Nelson said.
Pay attention to the side dishes as well. Steer clear of those that require expensive ingredients, particularly the ones that require a quarter-teaspoon of a $5-a-bottle spice that might sit in your cabinet the rest of the year.
In Atlanta, where Nelson lives, sweet potato soufflés are a traditional holiday dish and are often topped with pecans that can run $7 or $8 a pound. Instead, Nelson makes a crumble topping with oatmeal, brown sugar and butter that costs just pennies.
"A lot of people don't think about these costs, but these are the kinds of things that are going to put you over the top," Nelson said.
2. Gift wrap
My husband had an aunt who carped, every year, about the big pile of torn, colorful gift wrap the family accumulated on Christmas morning. She saw it as an egregious offense against the environment, plus a big waste of money. Everybody rolled their eyes, but you know what? She was right.
Wrapping paper isn't always recyclable -- it can be too thin, contain dyes or laminates and sport sticky ends of tape, all of which makes it tough to process. Then there's the cost: Even cheap paper can be pretty expensive when it's used only one time.
The good news is that you can make presents look lovely or charming without the commercial wrap -- and using the Sunday newspaper comics isn't your only option. Here are just a few alternatives:
- Gift bags. My sister-in-law bought a sturdy set of these from Costco several years ago, and we're still circulating them (although she complains that she's never gotten one back). Dollar stores have gift bags for a buck apiece. They may not be recyclable either, but you'll get a heck of a lot more use out of them than you will with a comparable roll of gift wrap.
- Fabric gift bags. If you have a sewing machine, these are pretty simple to make. Or you can simply gather a leftover bit of fabric around a present, knot the ends and be done with it.
- Reusable shopping bags. I like this set of six you can buy at Amazon.com for about $20. Ikea has colorful Lingo bags made of polypropylene for $1 to $2. Many retailers offer reusable bags for similar prices, and some even have holiday designs.
- Children's artwork. If you have kids, you have piles of paintings and drawings that can adorn their gifts to grandparents and other indulgent relatives. Creating wrapping paper is also a great activity to keep the tykes busy during the long winter break.
- Plain paper. You used to be able to get the unused ends of newsprint rolls from your local newspaper for free or cheap, but newer printing technologies have eliminated those in many areas. Instead, check out the 100-foot rolls of drawing paper you can get for $5 from Ikea or the 1,000-foot rolls of craft paper you can order from Amazon.com and other suppliers for less than $40. You can draw or stamp designs on the paper, or simply tie it with a raffia bow and a sprig of holly as adornment.
3. The unwanted present
Reindeer sweaters, anyone? The gift misfire is as much a holiday tradition as fruitcake and just about as welcome.
"Never did get the present, but eventually I did give him a divorce," she wrote.
Economist Joel Waldfogel, the author of "Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays," posits that a big chunk of holiday gift spending is "deadweight loss." That's his term for the billions of dollars wasted when people get gifts they don't really like or want and wouldn't buy themselves.
You could, of course, avoid gift exchanges entirely, opt to make charitable contributions instead or wimp out by using gift cards (more on that in a moment).
If you still want to give presents, though, here are a few suggestions for making sure those gifts are wanted:
- Review your gift-giving list. If you don't know someone's tastes and habits well enough to know what he or she would want, maybe it's time to halt the annual exchange with that person.
- Pool your resources. Sometimes you can wow someone with a $10 gift. More often, though, wowing requires serious dough. Going in on a gift with other people not only means you can afford more, but you'll have more people vetting the idea of what present to buy. Sites such as Shareagift.com can help you coordinate the fundraising. (Read "New way to shop online: Group gifts.")
- Quiz their nearest and dearest. Parents will have ideas for kids and teenagers. Significant others, siblings or best friends can be great resources for other folks.
- Ask the recipient for suggestions. If she's one of the increasingly rare folks who is shy about asking for what she wants, you might suggest taking her out for a picnic in the park or some other outing where you can spend time together in lieu of spending a lot of cash. She'll either be charmed by the idea or will quickly pony up with some better ones.
4. Checked-bag fees
Airlines collected about $3 billion last year in fees, and they're on track to rake in even more this year. Before 2007, most passengers never paid these fees, since two checked bags were included free with every ticket. Now, though, virtually every airline charges $25 or more per bag. (The exceptions are Southwest, which still allows two free checked bags, and JetBlue, which allows one.)
If you're hauling a bunch of holiday loot, you may encounter even more egregious fees -- the ones for overweight and oversize luggage. You could pay $100 or more each way. (AirfareWatchdog has a chart of airline bag fees here.)
With the plethora of free shipping offers available during the holidays, it often makes a lot more sense to have your presents shipped by the retailers to your destination. Another option is to focus on small gifts that can be easily packed in your carry-on bag. (That means no bottles of booze, jars of jelly or other liquids that exceed 3 ounces.) Ask those giving you gifts to consider your packing restraints.
If you do transport gifts in your luggage, carry-on or otherwise, don't wrap them. It's a waste of time and money, since airport security may tear off the wrapping to see what's inside.
5. Gift cards
About 7% of the amount spent on gift cards isn't redeemed each year, which means Americans are sitting on about $30 billion in unused gift cards, according to the gift card exchange site Plastic Jungle. Now that's a waste.
Why not just give cash? At least you'll know that will get spent, and you're not limiting the recipient's options. You're also not subjecting the recipient to the various fees that come with prepaid cards, which are often marketed as gift cards that can be used anywhere.
If you don't like the idea of giving cash, you should rethink giving a gift card, which is basically just plasticized cash. It really isn't any classier than the real green stuff.
6. Secret Santa gift exchanges
You have to wonder who came up with this particular nightmare of an office tradition. Clearly, it was someone with too much time and disposable income on his or her hands. The rest of us are challenged enough by the task of selecting appropriate gifts for the people we know and love. Who (other than Secret Santa organizers) wants to add to the list a person we barely know and certainly don't love?
One of my Facebook fans painted a picture of how bad the Secret Santa situation can get:
"It's an insane competition in my department. We've had hurt feelings, nasty comments, and backstabbing over Secret Santa gifts," she reported. "And NO ONE sticks to the budget. Not to mention they do this for 5 weeks! One gift each week. I'm not spending $150+ on a co-worker that will most likely be nasty about it."
A few readers confessed they liked the exchanges, but the majority registered opinions from "dislike" to "hate." "There is just too much office BS to have to think about spending my hard-earned cash on people that are only my disgruntled co-workers," one grumped.
You may be able to thwart this holiday hooey by seizing the higher ground. Suggest the office organize a food drive, adopt a local needy family or collect clothes and toiletries for a shelter. If the Secret Santa instigator protests, put on your most sincere face, bring up the fact that you're all so richly blessed (you do, after all, have jobs in a terrible economy) and suggest that "we think about people less fortunate than ourselves."
That should fix it. If not, suggest a "white elephant" gift exchange, for which people bring their misfires (like meat grinders, reindeer sweaters and Candy Land games) to foist on each other. The best version of this tradition allows participants to either pick from the pile of wrapped gifts during their turns or steal something that someone else has already chosen.
Image: Shopping online © Creatas, SuperStock
7. Donations to random charities
December is a big month for charitable giving. Scam artists and sketchy outfits posing as charities take advantage of our warm feelings during the holidays to fill their coffers.
If you want your hard-earned money to go to a good cause -- rather than to a criminal or a for-profit fundraiser, or the overpaid CEO of a not-really-nonprofit -- then you need to regard appeals for your help with some suspicion.
Here are some situations where you should really raise your guard:
- The cold call. Some legitimate charities use call centers to contact potential donors (charities are excepted from the federal Do-Not-Call list, which means they can contact you even if you signed up to end other telemarketing calls). But cold calls are also a hallmark of scammers and charities that hire expensive third-party fundraisers. Don't give your credit card number, bank account number or any other financial information to a cold caller, even if you think you recognize the charity. If you think you want to give, check out the charity on a watchdog site like Charity Navigator or GuideStar, and use its links to get to the charity's site.
- Firefighter or police "charities." If you want to benefit public servants, call your local fire or police department and ask how to do so. The departments will direct you to legitimate charities. Too many of the direct appeals you get that supposedly benefit firefighters or police are in reality scams, because the bad guys know people are a soft touch for these causes.
- Door-to-door or sidewalk appeals. There's really no way to tell if these folks are raising money for a cause or for themselves. Give them a check or your credit card number and your financial information can be misused. Besides, scattershot giving in response to these appeals isn't the best way to deploy your charitable dollars. Instead, pick a few areas where you want to concentrate your giving: the arts, say, or children's charities. Consider setting up a series of automatic payments so you'll be giving throughout the year, rather than trying to squeeze it in at the end when there are so many competing demands for your dollars.
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