This morning, in the harsh and judgmental light of the early winter sun, I engaged in one of my least favorite activities: exploring the wreckage of my checking account after a day that I knew was hard on it.
I used to be one of those people who would avoid checking my account balance at nearly all costs, unless the situation was dire and I needed to confirm that some purchase wasn’t going to get rejected in a dramatic and humiliating fashion while I stood, flipping through alternative modes of payment, at the register. I hated the feeling of opening my bank’s website and being confronted with the totally predictable (yet somehow still deeply upsetting) reality of my purchases. And, though it only happened once, having had my card skimmed and my checking account drained of several thousand dollars has put me in a permanent state of fear that it’s going to have happened again when I open up my statement.
But this is the season where excessive spending — on restaurants, nights out with friends, gifts (for others and for yourself), and near-endless alcohol — necessitates a vigilant eye when it comes to your accounts. It’s the season where we justify a lot of otherwise-ridiculous purchases with “well, it’s the holidays, it’s fine.” We pretend that we will tighten our financial belts in the new year with some terrible and short-lived resolution, even though we know we probably won’t. (And as someone whose birthday is in late January, I can tell you that my “whatever, it’s the holidays” period lasts well into Valentine’s Day.) In short, we should be more watchful than ever at this time.
And to that end, I have come up with five small steps for myself (and perhaps you?) to follow to keep things a bit more sane — and a bit less spendy — this season:
1. Check your account at least once a day, and make sure you know what every purchase is. It’s a time when your spending habits are completely abnormal, and if you’re not vigilant, you might not even realize that there are fraudulent purchases on your card. You’re also much less likely to spend with total impunity if you’re actually seeing the cost of your folly multiple times a day. If it makes you reconsider even one ill-conceived bottle of champagne or ironic ugly sweater, you’ve already won.
2. Take your money out of your checking account as much as possible. Transfer more of it than usual to your savings, put it in a sock under your mattress if you have to, just get it the hell out of your face, and off the card you can drain with just a swipe. The less you see available in that account, the less you will spend, period.
3. Make a very distinct list of the people who are getting “outer circle” gifts, and stick to it. Only a certain number of people are going to be able to receive real gifts that cost a lot of money (or at least, you know, more than 15-20 bucks). Come up with a good “catch-all” gift — I recommend festive cookies in a cute, personalized bag — and be serious about who is getting them. For 50 bucks, you can have an awesome, homemade gift for basically everyone you know who isn’t a close friend or family.
4. When it comes to going out, pregame, and have no shame in it. Between Christmas and New Year’s, you are going to be invited to the bar approximately 3098325082 times. And while you should definitely have a drink or two, you cannot be expected to rack up an 80 dollar tab every time. Be smart, invite a friend or two over to your place before you go out and have a couple drinks before heading out (by taxi or public transport, of course). You should already be 40 percent buzzed when you get there, so you can keep the cost down as much as possible (also, look out for specials, and propose the bar that has some great deals going on if possible). Otherwise, you are guaranteed to rack up half your rent in drinks/bar food alone by the time your vacation is over.
5. Wait for things to go on sale. Whatever it is that you want to buy yourself, there is a 90 percent chance that it will go on sale if you wait a few days. Do NOT succumb to the temptation to buy yourself something on a whim while out shopping for someone else. By January 1, stores will basically be paying you to take things from them. Your wallet will thank you for this tiny bit of foresight, and who knows? By that time, you may not even want it anymore. Which is, financially speaking, ~*~tHe GrEaTeSt GiFt Of aLL~*~
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