Those who emerge from the holiday season a little worse off financially may be in good company: Bloomberg reports that U.S. holiday retail sales rose by 3.5 between 2012 and 2013. This spells good news for the retail sector, but -- thanks to stagnant wages -- could also be an indication that Americans overspent. According to David Flores, personal financial counselor for GreenPath, it is a common scenario.
"In early January, we really see a surge in calls from people worried about their holiday bills," Flores said in a PR Newswire press release. "Once the excitement of the holidays has passed, they realize they need to get serious about paying off their debt in the New Year."
In other words, the moment those holiday lights come off the roof, financial stress goes through it, prompting many financial mis-managers to greet the New Year resolved to get their metaphorical books in order. But where does one begin? Here are a few tips for chipping away at holiday debt -- and minimizing it next year.
How to break the holiday debt machine
- Stop shopping. Now. It is easy to adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward spending when one's finances already seem to be spiraling out of control, but it only makes a bad situation worse. Enact a personal austerity program -- cutting expenses to just the necessities -- to stop the financial free fall.
- Assess the damage. Ignoring debt is a surefire way to grow it. It may not be easy, but a thorough, honest review of one's financial state is the first step toward improving it.
- Create a budget. It's impossible to climb out of debt unless your income exceeds your expenses. Just breaking even is not enough: According to GreenPath, everyone needs a financial safety net, and that means living below their means.
- Prioritize debts. How one spends their "debt budget" matters. Standard Bank advises holiday over-spenders to continue to pay up their debts, no matter how much they blew their holiday budgets. By tackling the smallest, most manageable balances first, one can free up more money faster -- money that can be funneled right into larger debts.
- Raise more money -- fast. Not everyone can swing a second job, but for those in serious debt, even temporary secondary employment can make a huge difference. Other ways to raise quick money, per MSN Money, include returning unwanted Christmas gifts or selling off other unnecessary items, like gift cards. Also consider cashing in any credit card rewards -- especially cash rewards that can be applied toward balances.
- Keep loved ones informed. Dishonesty of any sort is difficult on a marriage, and that includes financial dishonesty. According to USA Today, recent surveys suggest that more than half of married couples have used cash to hide large purchases, and more than one in 10 have taken out credit cards in their own name for the same purpose.
- Plan for next year. The best way to evade holiday debt is to plan for it by setting money aside throughout the year and minimizing how much one spends come shopping season.
Major debt? Know when to seek help
Sometimes all the budgeting and self-reflection in the world is not enough to overcome debt, regardless of its source, so it pays to know when to seek professional help. How? MSN Money advises readers to make a list of all their consumer debts, including all credit card, personal loan and medical payments. Next, use a debt payoff calculator to determine how much you would need to pay on each bill each month to ensure you're out of debt within five years, the same term applied by bankruptcy courts. If the total monthly expenditure exceeds your reasonable means, you should probably seek financial help. A personal financial advisor or debt relief counselor could be a great place to start. Savvy spenders might even consider furthering their financial education to learn more advanced money management principles.
"6 ways to avoid a holiday spending hangover," USA Today, December 8, 2013, Alex Veiga, http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2013/12/08/6-ways-to-avoid-a-holiday-season-spending-hangover/3895131/
"7 steps for tackling your holiday debt," MSN Money, December 26, 2013, Liz Weston, http://money.msn.com/debt-management/7-steps-for-tackling-your-holiday-debt
"Getting Your Finances Back On Track After The Holidays," Standard Bank, September 5, 2013, http://www.blog.standardbank.com/blog/2013/09/getting-your-finances-back-track-after-holidays
"Quick Tips On Getting Debt Under Control in 2014," PR Newswire, December 18, 2013, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/quick-tips-on-getting-debt-under-control-in-2014-236372381.html
"U.S. Holiday Sales Rise 3.5%, SpendingPulse Says," Bloomberg, Lindsey Rupp and Cotten Timberlake, December 26, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-26/u-s-holiday-sales-rise-3-5-spendingpulse-says.html