Soon people will be making promises to themselves to do something to improve their financial situations.
But many won’t make such a pledge until after the holiday season. It won’t happen until after they’ve spent more than they can afford buying gifts. They won’t be ready for a change until after they’ve added more debt to their credit cards trying to make Christmas magical through consumption.
I’m probably too late for a lot folks with just 13 days to go before Christmas, but what if you can still stop this financial madness?
What I’m suggesting is radical. It may result in friends and family giving you the stink eye. Your children may be disappointed. Yet, here you are again at this point in the year, broke and still splurging on gifts.
Don’t wait for the New Year to resolve to do better. Do it now! And how do you know that you should have a gift-free Christmas. Here’s how. If you answer no to any one of the following questions you should not be buying any presents.
-- Do you have an emergency fund? Experts recommend you save at least three to six months worth of living expenses. Let’s say with rent, utilities, food, cable, auto loan, debt payments, etc. your monthly expenses come to about $3,000 a month. In this case, you should aim to save a minimum of $9,000 (three months of living expenses) up to $18,000 (six months).
Okay, don’t faint. I get that the financial practicality of saving that much money is daunting -- if not impossible. It may be such a big number that you rationalize that you might as well buy gifts because you’ll never have that much extra in your budget to put in an emergency fund.
But you could get to $1,000 or maybe $2,000 if you started with what you had planned to spend during the holidays?
-- Are you saving anything or enough toward retirement? There is no question many people are far behind in their retirement savings.
A report by GoBankingRates.com found that 42 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement and 14 percent of survey respondents said they had nothing saved.
Read more: The top regrets of retirees
-- Got children? Are you saving anything or enough to eliminate or greatly reduce the need to take out student loans? I have a question for you. What will matter most? That your children got a lot toys or clothes they’ve long forgotten by the time they graduate from college or that their degree didn’t come with a lot of debt?
I recently challenged a couple on this very issue. I proposed that they not spend anything for Christmas so that they could boost the savings for their daughter’s college education. The mother just stared at me as if I had two heads. And yes, she gave me the stink eye.
But to the couple’s credit they went home and discussed with their children whether it was okay for them to pull back on holiday spending to help with college savings. In one child’s case they could use the money to help down some of her student loans. And you know what? Their children were perfectly fine with the decision. They understood what they were giving up in exchange for what they would be gaining – financial freedom.
-- Are you paying off your credit cards in full every month? A survey by Swagbucks found that 63 percent of Americans go into debt during the holidays.
If you have outstanding credit card balances that you are carrying forward every month, you absolutely should not be spending anything for the holidays. You definitely shouldn’t be putting any additional charges on the card or cards -- even if your card has a zero percent interest rate.
The average median annual percentage rate (APR) for retail cards is 25.64 percent, according to CreditCards.com. The rate for general-purpose cards is 20.82 percent.
When it comes to reward cards, only 41 percent of cardholders pay their bills in full every month, according another survey by CreditCards.com
-- Are you paying off your student loans?
Outstanding student loan debt is now at $1.5 trillion, making it the second-largest amount of debt behind mortgages, according to the Federal Reserve.
Certainly, if you have to, you should take advantage of the option of putting your federal loans in deferment or forbearance. Maybe you’re unemployed or just can’t make ends meet.
A deferment allows borrowers to stop making loan payments if they meet certain criteria, such as an economic hardship. If you have a subsidized federal loan you don’t have to pay interest while in deferment. However, if you have an unsubsidized loan, interest keeps accruing and is capitalized if you don’t pay it.
Lenders may also grant a forbearance that gives borrowers permission to stop making payments for a set period of time. But forbearance is generally a more expensive option than deferment because interest continues to accrue, even on federal subsidized loans.
I get it that the gifts are a one-time expense during the year. A loan payment is due every month.
But it still makes no sense to me that you have loans in deferment or forbearance and you’re buying gifts for people.
If you’re bold and brave enough to embrace a no-gift holiday, you may be surprised at the positive reaction you get especially if you tell folks that you’re trying to get your finances together.
A Harris poll last year conducted for SunTrust Banks found that 69 percent of survey respondents said they would skip exchanging gifts for the holiday season if their friends and family agreed to it. A majority of those who bought or made gifts said they would spend more time with friends and family if they didn’t have to worry about gifts.
“The survey findings suggest that financial anxiety during the holidays is taking its toll on many Americans and could be a reason for rethinking gift-giving and focusing on other priorities. Forty-three percent of those who spend money on anything related to the holidays said they feel pressured to spend more than they can afford,” SunTrust said in a release about its survey. “If they didn't have to buy gifts, 25 percent would use the money on activities with friends and family, 37 percent would pay down debt and 47 percent would save or invest.”
I know it’s hard not to be generous during the holiday season. If you have children, I understand that you don’t want them to be disappointed. Yet long term, it’s about your presence not the presents. And if that’s the case why not use that money you would have spent on gifts to put yourself in a better financial situation.
Color of Money question of the week
Have you done a gift-free holiday? If so, how did it go over with friends and family? Send your comments to email@example.com. Please include your name, city and state. Put “No Gifts” in the subject line. Please include your name, city and state.
Live chat today
I’m live at noon (ET) today to take your personal finance questions.
It’s also “Testimony Thursday” so share with me your success stories. Have you paid of debt? Did you finally reach your emergency fund goal?
To join the live discussion click this link.
Trump and the stock market
Tweets by President Trump can move the market in such a way that send people heading for a simple savings account.
After a series of tweets on what appears to be failing trade negotiations with China, the Dow Jones industrial average fell, as did S&P 500 Index and Nasdaq.
Things were looking up again on Tuesday as the markets opened as it appeared there was movement on trade talks.
But then Trump had a sparring match with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer over the funding of a border wall. Trump has threaten to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get $5 billion for a wall he has repeatedly said would be paid for by Mexico.
Watch me talk about it on a recent CNN segment with host Victor Blackwell: Investors spooked after Trump sends mixed signals
Last week I asked: What do you think about the impact Trump tweet’s have on the stock market?
“Trump is an idiot for putting whatever comes into his mind about China trade talks out on Twitter,” wrote Thomas J. Druitt, of Paducah, Ky., a regular commenter who does financial markets research and analysis. “The less said publicly about these negotiations, the better. Conflicting “Trump Tweets” and official statements from Chinese trade authorities accomplish nothing except to jerk emotionally-drive stock market sentiment up and down with resulting huge price volatility on both directions. When he put out Tuesday’s tweet saying, ‘I am a tariff man’ the major stock indices quite predictably tanked as soon as the tweet became public. Why was this? Because both he and the Chinese had raised expectations that a trade deal was coming closer to being struck. The big post-Thanksgiving price run-up in the S&P and Dow that were sparked by the optimism that Trump generated himself were completely given back. You have placed blame for these pointless market gyrations exactly where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of one Donald J. Trump.”
Color of Money columns this week
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