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6 budget-busting expenses during the holiday shopping season

It’s hard to keep on budget this time of year. These are the things to watch out for.

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Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, you’ll be presented with an almost unlimited amount of opportunities to spend more money than you intended, what with travel, festivities, gifts, dining out and more.

We wondered which holiday budget busters to watch out for during the holiday shopping season, and how to make it to January in one piece. (Financially speaking, at least.) To get answers, we asked Natalie Taylor, CFP and head of financial advice at Monarch Money. Here’s what she told us:

In this article:

Start by making a budget

No matter your income or your priorities, the holidays can be a significant financial undertaking — whether you’re spoiling relatives with presents or just spending a lot to see them during a buddy time of year. So treat them that way.

“One important thing is to add up the numbers in advance, instead of going into the holiday season and taking each purchase as it comes,” says Taylor. “Take 15 minutes to make a budget for the expenses that are going to come with the holidays.”

“Figure out who you’re going to buy for and what the budget range is for each of those gifts,” she continues. “Work out what travel you’re going to do and what food you’re going to need if you’re hosting. There’s also postage for holiday cards and gifts. Just spending a little time to ballpark some numbers makes a huge difference because then you can see where it all adds up and hopefully not end up paying it off in the new year.”

And now, the expenses to watch out for:


A surprising source of holiday spending? Having people over. “With inflation and food prices being so high, I think sometimes when we’re cooking at home, we forget to account for the cost of all of the ingredients and everything that it takes to host,” Taylor says. “We think about gifts and we think about travel, but if you’re hosting it can be quite expensive.”

To lower your holiday expenses, “don’t be afraid to take people up when they say they’d like to bring something,” says Taylor. “In fact, pot luck can be a great way to do it if you do the main course and everybody brings sides; that can make a huge difference to cost. There’s also nothing wrong with asking your guests to each bring a bottle.”

Speaking of booze, when you buy yours, consider buying in bulk. If you do your Christmas and New Year alcohol shopping at the same time as your Thanksgiving shopping, you’ll get discounts and save on shipping (and it’s not like the wine is going to go bad). Just be sure to keep the bottles in separate places at home, so you and yours don’t accidentally go through them all during Thanksgiving.

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Sending holiday cards

This can be a sneaky way to blow your holiday budget. You can go big (hiring a photographer) or small (choosing a few candid snaps from the past year). You can get fancy with the design, or stick to something more basic.

And as Taylor notes, “if you’re doing holiday cards, if you do the postcard version, instead of doing the card which opens up and is sent in an envelope, the price of postage is around 50% less,” says Taylor. This is also eco-friendlier — and it’s also more likely to end up on someone’s fridge than a traditional card would.


There are people whose gifts you probably won’t skimp on (such as your spouse or kids, if you have them), but there are others whose gifts could reasonably become more, ahem, economical.

“There are alternatives to buying something for everyone on your list,” says Taylor, and you may want to look into them “once you add up the costs of all your presents.” As an example, she suggests baking someone something that will cost a few dollars per person, rather than buying expensive candles for hosts. As a bonus, “me and my family will enjoy making it.”

Something you make by hand, or something that shows more thought and creativity than a price tag can, will generally set you back less than something store-bought.

You can measure your expenses in other ways, too. Some gift recipients — say, a sibling or parent who can afford nice things for themselves — might appreciate a donation to a favorite charity, rather than have you spending money on something you think they’ll like. Or you can get them something sentimental but inexpensive, like a framed photo or a book of pictures of your family.


So that’s one way to save money on gifts. But if you’re buying things, another way to save money is to track sales. Black Friday and Cyber Monday can both be good times to get cheap gifts — if you’ve already worked out what you might want to get people. So start thinking now.

If you plan on getting clothes for anyone, there will also be smaller yet significant sales between now and the holidays as stores change out their seasonal offerings. (Yes, that means you may not be buying anyone winter gear during the holidays, but one could argue that it’s more festive to buy warm weather clothes like a swimsuit.)

The other advantage of shopping ahead is that it reduces your risk of last-minute gift buying which, in addition to being stressful, often results in paying more than you wanted for gifts that are only kind-of what you had in mind.



The simple arithmetic of supply and demand ensures that the holidays — when everyone wants to travel, and there is only so much fuel for planes and cars — are an expensive time to go anywhere, no matter how you’re going.

If you’re traveling by plane, flexibility can help. “On travel sites like Kayak or Expedia, you can see the single double or triple dollar sign days for traveling, so flexing a day or two can really help you,” says Taylor. (Depending on your relatives, going to visit them a day or two earlier may either sound like fun or punishment, but there’s a good chance it will save you money.)

If you’re going by car, apps like GasBuddy or Upside can help you plan ahead by showing you how much gas costs at different stations along your route. If you time your stops to stations with lower prices, rather than just driving until you hit empty, you can save a few bucks each way.

If you have your pick of cars, either at home or from a rental spot, choosing the most fuel-efficient option can save you money as well. (It also makes a nice holiday gift to the planet.)


Of all the various expenses that just seem to pop up over the holidays, one of the more avoidable ones is self-gifting. If you’re spending a lot of time shopping for others, you’ll likely come across some things that you would like, and you may even feel like you deserve them.

And hey, maybe you do. But still, try to abstain. If you can get yourself through the holidays and into January without a deficit (and in position to hit your savings goals), you should consider that the greatest gift of all.

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