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Playing Santa for Oneself Can Lead to a Debt-Filled New Year, UF Expert Warns

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With more than half of us expecting to play Santa for ourselves this holiday season, a University of Florida family finance expert warns that being self-indulgent – even at bargain prices – can lead to a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

According to an annual consumer survey conducted for the National Retail Federation, 56 percent of us expect to treat ourselves this season, taking advantage of holiday sales. Another 30 percent aren’t sure, and 13 percent say they can resist temptation.

On top of the $816 the average consumer expects to spend on the holidays this year, they’ll tack on another $106 treating themselves, the survey said. The trend has held steady. The same survey in 2002 showed 55 percent of respondents intended to spend on themselves.

“If you start buying for yourself while you’re buying for other people, especially, you really run the risk of overspending,” said Michael Gutter, an assistant professor in family financial management with the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “You’re just going to likely spend more than you intended and you’re only going to end up being frustrated in the result.”

Gutter’s No. 1 rule for avoiding a financial holiday hangover: Before you ever step foot in a store, make a budget. Either jot down specific gift ideas for those on your list or the amount you can spend on each person.

“Making those lists in advance can help people really kind of set limits, set boundaries for themselves,” he said. “And if your name isn’t on the list of people that you’re buying for, then that can sometimes be helpful.”

Gail Cunningham, spokesman for the Silver Spring, MD-based National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says not sticking to a budget is one of the biggest consumer mistakes. “People are well intentioned,” she said. “About half of the people that go out shopping make a budget, and half will exceed that dollar amount.”

Once you’re out shopping, instead of grabbing those half-price shoes that go perfectly with your new black skirt, pass the buck, Gutter says. Go home and drop a hint about the shoes to a relative or friend who may be looking for a good gift idea.

“If there’s a sweater you really like and you really wanted to get it for yourself, or a video game or whatever it is…there’s nothing wrong with letting people know,” he said. “In fact, I find that if you do that, people are grateful. Because no one knows what to get anyone, most of the time.”

If no one takes your well-placed hint, evaluate the gifts you do get. Often you can go back and buy those perfect shoes with a gift card or cash. Or you can take back a present you don’t like and exchange it for the shoes, he said.

Other rules on Gutter’s list to avoid a depressing January:

If you can do your holiday shopping with cash or a debit card, leave the interest-accruing credit cards safely at home.

“It’s the ultimate stopgap,” he said. “No matter how much you’re using the debit card, you’re going to think ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, did I go over my balance?’ With the credit cards, we may not think about it at all.”

But many consumers don’t have the bank balance available to pull off a cash-only Christmas, he said. And for them, here’s another rule:

Do not, under any circumstances, use credit cards to charge more than you can pay off by the end of February without ignoring other bills, he said.

“We hear that the average American has $9,000 in credit card debt, well, this is why,” he said. “We don’t ever let ourselves pay it off because we’re constantly giving ourselves permission to charge this or charge that. So I really do suggest that two-month limit.”

And Gutter urges everyone to think about what they’re spending on the holiday and why. There is enormous pressure to spend to make the holiday “perfect,” but you can ignore it.

“If you get someone a video game system, it’s not like you saved the world. It’s a nice gesture, but you might even feel better about yourself sometimes to give some of that money away,” he said. “I think people as they get older often see that.”

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  • By:
    Mickie Anderson – (352) 273-3566
  • Source:
    Michael Gutter – msgutter@ufl.edu, (352) 392-1945 x228