Your Survival Guide to Staying Out of Holiday Debt

If you’re nervous about beginning the new year with debt from holiday overspending, you’re not alone. Turns out, the average credit card debt from holiday shopping last year was $1,054 per household. What’s more, 15% of Americans are still paying off their credit card balances from the last holiday season. No bueno.

To start 2019 on the right foot, here are some tips to help you avoid holiday debt:

Create a Holiday Spending Plan

Just like how you’d create a budget for your living expenses, create a plan for your holiday-related spending. This includes everything from travel, decorations, festive attire for social gatherings and work parties, gift wrap, cards, child or pet care, and of course, gifts. Set a spending limit for each type of expense, and stick to it. For your list of giftees, jot down ideas for presents with your budget already in mind.

How to do it:

Follow any or all of the steps below to create a holiday spending budget:

  • Write it all down in a notepad

  • Keep tabs on your spending and lists in a spreadsheet using Excel or Google Sheets

  • Download a budget app like PocketGuard, Wally, YNAB, Mint, or ClarityMoney

Avoid Sales and Inbox Promos

Coupons and end-of-year-sales are tempting, but can result in you spending more money. A survey by MagnifyMoney revealed that a quarter of consumers needed five months or more to pay off their holiday spending debt. So stick to your list — and budget — and don’t spend more on a given person or item, even if you spot a “killer deal.” Chances are, it will only do damage to your wallet.

How to do it:

  • Practice “inbox promo zero.” Delete irrelevant email sales promos as soon as they arrive. Don’t click on them to see what goods are on sale, and don’t let them linger in your inbox.

  • Leave the credit cards at home. If you’re unable to practice self-control when it comes to splurging, then leave the credit cards at home this holiday season and un-tether any credit cards from your Android Pay or Apple Pay wallets. That way, you can’t rationalize or talk yourself into any over-spending if you don’t have the funds to blow.

Don’t Obligate Yourself

Do you really need to buy gifts for your aunts, uncles, and cousins? Or will a single gift for each family do? Not only will this save your holiday cash, but it will also relieve stress and free up time that you can spend on things you truly enjoy.

Gift Experiences, Not Things

Practice “doubling-up.” For example, when contributing to a charity, make a small donation to a non-profit on behalf of someone on your giftee list. Or if you love to travel, give redeemable vouchers or travel certificates. Scour Groupon, Goldstar, or LivingSocial for discounts. That way, you can offer an experiential gift instead.


If you have spare time, let your friends and family know that instead of exchanging gifts, you can perhaps volunteer together. Or, if they’re pressed for time, volunteer x number of hours on their behalf in lieu of purchasing them a gift.

How to do it:

  • Turn it into a group effort. See if co-workers, friends, or family would like to participate.

Pick Up a Side Hustle

You can make extra money doing in-demand jobs such as driving for a ridesharing service, pet or kid sitting, getting a seasonal job gift-wrapping, or handling tasks on a job platform like TaskRabbit. Check with friends or neighbors who are willing to pay you for your time to help out with chores or to prep for a large party. You can also moonlight in the comfort of your own home by scanning receipts or getting paid to take online surveys.

How to do it:

  • Gauge how much time you can reasonably commit to side hustling and the amount of money you’d like to make for it to be worthwhile.

  • Ask friends and relatives if they need help over the holidays.

  • Scour gig and paid survey sites such as TaskRabbit, Swagbucks, or Upwork.