Helpful tips to avoid a ‘silly season’ financial hangover.

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What a year 2020 has been! Bushfires, storms, floods, pandemics, recession … it’s really thrown everything at us. But Australians are resilient people and here we are with the borders open (mostly) looking forward to more freedom of movement and being able to catch-up with family and friends for the upcoming holidays and celebrations.  

It’s a time of year I love because it brings the family together. We eat, drink, play, and generally enjoy fun times.  However, as a family, we don’t want anyone to end up with a financial hangover, like a credit card debt that puts you behind the eight ball as we start a new year.  Over the years as a family we have introduced some family arrangements to help avoid that. I got to thinking that others might have some great ideas as well, so I’ve asked around the office, my family and friends, and this quick article is to share their tips with you.

The ‘Silly Season’, as it’s affectionately known, means different things for different people.  For some, it’s about celebrating Christmas – which means gifts, decorations and often family get-togethers.  It’s also a time when we see out the old year and ring in the new. In Australia, it’s the summer school holidays too, so many families take the opportunity to holiday together before heading back to school or work again. However you spend this time, it generally brings with it many costs that aren’t necessarily part of our everyday. It’s when those costs build up and aren’t managed well that we can end up with a financial hangover … which is not a great way to start a new year.

I have lots of great tips to share with you … and I’m sure you’ll have heard many of them before, but it never hurts to be reminded. As we work our way through these tips, I think you’ll agree that they all come down to these 3 things:

Planning, prioritising, and being prepared.

Gifting

For those who celebrate Christmas, the tradition of gift-giving at this time of year is where costs can really start to blow out – especially if you’re from a large family.  My best tip here is to start early. Pick up gifts throughout the year as you see them on sale or perhaps on a visit to the markets.

Planning really is helpful here – write your list (and as Santa does, check it twice) and plan your shopping trip – wandering, window shopping, and browsing can lead to overspending. It might also help to shop with friends, with whom you can take advantage of 2-for-1 offers, or who are simply there for moral support and can help keep you on the straight and narrow.

One thing that many people fall victim to, is buying for themselves too … you know, “That lovely little bracelet for Karen would look great with my new dress too so I’ll pop one in for me too”.

I know lots of people who have family arrangements whereby you don’t need to buy gifts for everyone. That arrangement might be that one family just buys for another; or perhaps you only buy for the children; or maybe you use a Secret Santa type arrangement.

I’ve also been blessed to receive some really lovely inexpensive handmade gifts over the years. One that springs to mind is a gift that keeps on giving every year. It was the recipe and ingredients for mulled wine, that has now become a regular Christmas Eve tradition for my husband and I.

Maybe handmade is not your thing, but you’re a great online shopper. If you are shopping online though many of these tips still apply, but also be aware of the additional shipping costs you might incur.

Decorations

Another cost that can build up for some people is decorations – and again, I am mostly talking about those who celebrate Christmas here.

I must admit that now that my children have left home, my own decorations are fairly modest.  I also tend to re-use the same ones each year, especially the handmade ones that have been passed down from my parents or made by my children – they generally have some lovely memories attached too.

The other extreme, of course, are those wonderful people who create magical light shows that delight the children. I think many people have gradually added to their collections over the years but there can still be a significant amount of money tied up in these decorations. For some too, this means a significant increase in their energy costs.

I recall visiting a display when my children were younger and asking that very question.  While I was staggered at the amount they paid, the couple went on to explain that it was such a joy for them to create their wonderland and share it with so many people that they put money aside every fortnight from their pension to ensure they could cover those costs and continue their tradition. I’ve even seen discrete collection points for voluntary donations from visitors to help with the extra energy costs too.

Family functions

Now, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, the summer holidays are often a great time to get together with the extended family. And again, prior preparation and planning are the keys to having a lovely family event without breaking the bank.

My family is a great one for sharing the love … or the load, whichever way you prefer to think of it. For our family get-togethers everyone brings a dish to share. Surprisingly, we rarely get ‘double-ups’ as it seems everyone has their own special talent or food favourite, and you do get to try some wonderful new dishes. If you find you are getting similar dishes, ask people what they would like to bring first then suggest an alternative if there’s any duplication. Otherwise, you might make a list of dishes and ask people to select from that list.

I know some people swear by hamper schemes – where you pay a monthly subscription throughout the year then come December this lovely big hamper full of goodies magically arrives on your doorstep ready to be enjoyed. It’s like putting money aside in a savings account each month and then having someone else do the shopping for you.

Parties/celebrations

This time of year also brings plenty of other socialising as well – although it may look a little different this year as we’re social distancing and limiting numbers in venues. However, whether it’s the work Christmas party, the end of year get-together for your netball team, or bringing in the new year – there are often lots of parties to go to. One thing to bear in mind though, if you’re watching your costs, is that you don’t have to go to all of them.  Be selective and choose the ones that make most sense for you.

It’s also worth considering whether you need a new outfit for every event. In many cases there will be different people at each event so it’s unlikely anyone will see you in the same outfit twice. You could also consider accessorising differently to give an outfit a different look and feel for each event.

While some parties will have everything provided, others will require you to buy your own meal or drinks.  Rather than just show up, credit card in hand, set yourself a budget and organise yourself to stick to this limit. That might be either only taking a set amount of cash (and don’t forget to keep some aside for your cab fare home) or it might be using a debit card attached to an account that only has a limited amount of money available.

Holidays

As I said earlier, with this time of year being the Australian school summer holidays, many families will holiday together … perhaps travelling to see family, having some fun at the beach or in the country, or seeing places they’ve never seen before.  Whatever your reason, or choice of destination, here’s a few tips to help keep those costs down too.

Don’t leave things until the last minute. Planning well in advance may mean that you can take advantage of cheaper accommodation and flights.  Though conversely, sometimes you may get cheaper last-minute deals as resorts, restaurants and so on try to get as many people to their venue as possible.

Holidaying in self-contained accommodation can also help to keep food/meal costs down. Eating out for every meal can be expensive and often not as good for us as we choose things we wouldn’t normally eat. If you share the cooking duties around this means everyone gets the chance to have a good break from the usual day-to-day chores too.

Sharing accommodation costs works for some families too.  It may be cheaper to rent a large house or cabin for a couple of families than for each to rent their own smaller place.  This does mean though that you need to be prepared to share the space, and potentially your own personal space too. It doesn’t mean that everyone needs to do everything together, but some great memories can be created, and great stories shared.

Back to school/work

As if all the Christmas, New Year, and holiday costs aren’t enough, then we go back to school or work. And, as any parent knows, back-to-school can be as challenging and stressful as preparing for Christmas.

If you can, find out what your children will need with regard to uniforms, equipment, text books and stationery before school finishes this year so you can pick up any bargains you spot over the holiday period.

As a single Mum with a son at boarding school, second-hand books and uniforms were a godsend for me. In my experience, kids grow so quickly that often you don’t get any more than 6-12 months wear out of school uniforms. So being able to buy them cheaper than new, then be able to sell them again, helped to cover the cost throughout his school years. As people become more conscious of recycling and re-using, this is becoming more readily available though some schools.

Payment methods

Okay, enough of the fun stuff … because as much as we try to keep the costs down, it is without question a time of additional costs.  So, let’s have a look at some of the methods we use to pay those costs and how we can make the best of them too.

If you’re going to use your credit card … do you have an interest free period that you can take advantage of? Or are you better off with a low rate card?  Some people have one of each.  Using their interest free period card for those expenses they can pay off quickly but placing larger amounts that they’ll pay off over time on a lower rate card.

If you’ve racked up a bit of debt on your credit card, consider doing a balance transfer of your card after Christmas to take advantage of the many low rate offers in the credit card market.  This is essentially an application for a new credit card so if you decide on this path, I’d encourage you to make sure you close the old card so you’re not tempted to continue to use it, and to set up a regular, automated repayment plan that will clear the new card during the interest free/low rate period.

Be aware too that cash advances on any credit card, even one with an interest free period on purchases, will calculate interest on a cash advance from day 1. This is potentially the most expensive way to borrow money.  Credit cards are the riskiest type of lending for a lender and as such attract the highest interest rates.

Can I also suggest that wherever possible that you pay more than the minimum repayment amount on your statement? This minimum repayment amount is often 2% of the outstanding balance which will barely cover the interest cost for the month, let alone repaying any of the principle amount.

If you’re paying off more than one card, either try to consolidate them at a lower rate or put the greatest percentage of your repayments to the card with the highest interest rate to get that one paid off sooner. You can avoid interest costs altogether by using a debit card, which of course accesses your own money in your account. Because they’re issued by Visa and Mastercard though, you can use them to make online purchases too.

The ‘buy now, pay later’ (BNPL) market is booming in Australia at the moment as consumers embrace this new way to pay. Retailers are also looking for alternative ways for their customers to pay them, so new players continue to enter the market with their ‘latest and greatest’ offerings.

Each BNPL offering is slightly different. Many of them offer interest-free finance but be on the lookout for the fees they may charge instead. Many of them also provide their service without doing an initial credit check which is attractive for those whose credit score may need some love, however any missed payments are reported which can adversely affect your credit score. Repayments are generally made by setting up direct debits to a bank account which means that if there’s insufficient money in the account to make the payment you may well be charged a fee by your financial institution as well as the BNPL provider.

Before choosing to use BNPL, or any new payment method, do your research to make sure you understand what you’re signing up for, budget to meet your repayments and keep your costs down, and ensure it doesn’t negatively impact your credit score. You want to be able to keep track of all your repayments and not end up spending more than you had intended.

 

So that’s it for my hints and tips … as you can see, and as I prefaced at the outset, they mostly boil down to planning, prioritising, and being prepared.  So, I hope the tips have been helpful and perhaps jogged a few ideas to help you keep your ‘silly season’ costs down, so you don’t start the new year with a financial hangover.

 


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Bronwyn Lawson

As a Financial Educator with Westpac's Davidson Institute, Bronwyn Lawson draws on her diverse history in banking and finance. Since making the transition from banking to education 15 years ago, Bronwyn has delivered face to face workshops to business owners across the country, and helped people from all walks of life to enhance their financial knowledge. Bronwyn's most satisfying work to date is the time she spent in a number of Pacific Island nations helping educate and empower people, particularly women, to take control of their money and build better futures for themselves and their families.

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