It’s here again. The holiday season. And, since you knew it was coming, you undoubtedly planned for the seasonal spending and have money set aside to handle the extra expenses. No? Well, that puts you in the same boat as most of the rest of us.
Most of us don’t plan well for the holidays – at least, not financially. They happen every year, and every year we promise ourselves that next year will be different. But it never is. The budget is already tight, so we can’t see how we would set aside money each month to save up for the holidays.
So, we pull out the credit card(s). We spend on concerts, parties, and events because, after all, it’s only once a year. We buy decorations for the house and special food because, well, it’s the holidays. We purchase gifts because that’s what you do this time of year.
And then the credit card statements come in January and we wonder how we’re going to recover. A back-of-the-napkin calculation tells us it will probably take a few months and some sacrifices to pay off everything we charged in November and December. And if we go far enough as to quantify exactly what sacrifices we’ll need to make, we probably experience some buyer’s remorse.
Same as last year.
If this sounds like your typical holiday season and feels like how this year is stacking up, this article is for you. And the good news is that it’s not too late! You still have an opportunity to prioritize spending this holiday season and to determine just how far you’re willing to go into debt. A little intentionality now can greatly reduce the January credit card statement blues.
Charge it? Or Take Charge?
If you didn’t plan for this year’s holiday spending, you have some decisions ahead of you. It’s easy to default to “spend now and worry about it later,” but this lack of intentionality betrays poor stewardship and will likely result in some consequences when the bills start coming due. So knowing that you’re not prepared, how can you minimize the damage?
Start with Prayer
As always in the stewardship journey, begin with prayer. If you need to confess carelessness with God’s resources, start there. And receive God’s forgiveness! While you need to be intentional about how you move forward, you don’t need to stew in guilt.
Ask God to help you set priorities regarding your holiday spending. He knows your situation – the commitments you’ve made, the expectations you’re trying to meet, your own desires for the holidays. Bring these before God and commit yourself to following his leading. “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans” (Proverbs 16:3). And spend some time in silence, putting yourself in a posture to hear and receive God’s response. If it helps, journal what God brings to mind.
Don’t short-cut this! This is the most important part of determining your spending priorities for the holidays. You have more opportunities to spend than you have money to spend, so receiving God’s direction is critical to your holiday stewardship. God knows what will be most meaningful to you and to those you love over the holidays, and he is able to direct your paths to those things.
Use Available Savings
As you pray, ask God to reveal any resources available to you that will help reduce the amount of debt you might take on. For example, do you have savings that you can bring into play? We’re not talking about Emergency Savings – you need to keep that intact no matter what. But do you have other short-term savings you can use? Have you been saving up for a special purchase? Consider using that money as part of your holiday spending to minimize the amount of debt you would otherwise take on.
Set a Cap
Prayerfully consider how much you need to spend on the holidays this year. Review what you spent last year. Food, events, clothes, gifts, decorations, travel – it all counts. If you didn’t specifically track it, you can probably guesstimate it based on credit card statements from November, December, and January.
Taking into account your available savings, if you were to spend the same amount this year as you did last year, how much debt would you have to take on? Are you willing to take on that much debt? If you have a Spending Plan, use that to estimate how long it would take you to pay off this additional debt. If you don’t have a Spending Plan, estimate as closely as you can how much money you’ll need to free up each month to pay off the holiday debt and how long it would take.
Based on last year’s spending, your available savings, and your tolerance for debt, set a cap on this year’s spending. Pray over this cap, asking God for direction, and be open to how he might lead you to adjust the cap (in either direction).
Make a List…
Using information from the previous year and any updates, make a list of all the expenses you might have for this holiday season. Account for gifts you plan to purchase, events you plan to attend, travel plans, special holiday food expenses, and any other expenses unique to the holidays. Estimate the amounts associated with each and total them up. This is your first cut at projected spending for the holidays.
…and Check it Twice
Compare your projected spending to the cap you set earlier. There’s a good chance that your spending adds up to more than your cap. Prayerfully consider some trade-offs to scale back on spending until it fits within your cap. What do you need to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to the most important things?
As you consider some of these trade-offs, ask yourself some key questions:
- Am I spending on this because I really feel it’s valuable or only because others expect it? Am I putting the opinions of others ahead of good stewardship principles?
- Is this spending likely to result in lasting joy for myself or others, or will it only create some temporary “holiday cheer”? Holiday memories are important and often lasting; what types of spending will create lasting memories and what spending will be forgotten until the bill comes?
- Are there alternatives to reduce or eliminate some spending? For example, can we reuse decorations from last year rather than buying new ones? Do we really need a new outfit for one party? Are there free or less expensive alternatives to more costly events? Can we take this year off of travel and save up for the trip next year?
Better Luck Next Year?
By now, you probably know that luck has nothing to do with stewardship. Stewardship is about recognizing God as the owner of all things, and managing resources he has put into our care. It requires intentionality, because the current of our culture drifts away from Biblical stewardship, not toward it. So if we’re not being intentional, we’re likely drifting downstream, away from the goal of Biblical stewardship.
A popular definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” You already know that you don’t want next year to catch you off-guard like this year did. So you need to do something different. How do you get started?
1. Track Your Spending
The first step toward being able to control anything is having the right information. For next year to work, you need to have good records of what happened this year. So start by listing all of your holiday-related expenses and categorizing them broadly. Track expenses related to gift-giving, travel, food, events, clothes, etc. List it all, and when the credit card statements come in, double-check your list to be sure it’s complete.
If you’d like some help with this, check out our blog article “How to Track and Categorize Spending” and download the Spending Record attached to that article. You can modify the categories in the Spending Record to track holiday expenses specifically.
2. Evaluate Your Spending
Look over your spending list and ask yourself if you’d repeat that spending again. Was the thing you spent money on worth it? Would you do it exactly the same way again, or would you scale it back? (or maybe scale it up?)
You’ve already listed all your holiday expenses, their categories, and the amounts you spent. Now add one more column – next year’s projected spending. Based on your feelings about the value you got from what you spent this year, what do you project spending on that same item next year? What can be eliminated? Does anything need to be added? Be sure you assign amounts to each item to project next year’s spending.
3. Plan for Next Year
Total up your projections for spending next year. This is the amount of money you need to have set aside (preferably by mid-November at the latest) to fund next year’s holiday spending.
Now, how will you save that money? Will you set aside money from an annual bonus or tax refund? Matching one-time income with one-time expenses is a good way to account for these expenses without impacting your Spending Plan. Does your projected one-time income cover what you expect for holiday expenses?
If not, or if you don’t anticipate windfall incomes in the coming year, then you’ll need to adjust your Spending Plan to account for holiday spending. Divide your total projected spending by 12. This is the amount you’ll need to set aside each month in order to fund your holiday spending. Chances are, you’re going to need to make some trade-offs in other areas in order to free up money for holiday spending. For help with this, see our Blog article, “Spending Priorities and Non-negotiables“.
Stewardship and Holiday Spending
Spending on the holidays isn’t wrong. Many holiday traditions build relationships, focus our hearts on God, and create lasting memories. Holiday spending is not by definition poor stewardship.
That said, when any spending creates consumer debt, it leads to stress and gets in the way of key stewardship goals. If we haven’t planned for holiday spending, then we haven’t evaluated the priorities of that spending against other key financial goals. As a result, we’re likely to be swept along in the moment and find that we’re not able to pursue some key priorities until we’ve paid off the holiday debt. Scripture tells us that the borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7).
How does your holiday spending look? If it looks like it’s going to saddle you with significant credit card debt, now is the time to take stock. Be intentional about your spending, weighing the benefits of the spending against the cost of the debt. Keep a stewardship mindset as you plan what you will spend on and how much you will spend.
And set yourself up for success next year by keeping good records this year and planning and saving in advance for next year’s holiday season.