This article was written by PolicyGenius staff writer Paul Sisolak.
In case you haven't noticed, Christmas is almost here, and if you haven't bought any gifts yet for your friends, family and loved ones by now, you've officially entered the dreaded last-minute holiday shopping mode.
Everyone, from chronic procrastinators to savvy shoppers, can relate to it well. You've either put off your shopping until the last minute, or you planned ahead but simply forgot to buy that special something for a special someone. Now, you've got just a few days to scramble and buy all your gifts without showing up empty handed for the Christmas morning gift exchange.
As the days come closer to Christmas Eve, that means more crowded malls, emptier shelves, and plenty of sightings of people fighting over that last tattered greeting card on the rack. It can all make you prone to poor shopping habits, like overspending, impulse buying, or splurging on overpriced items you'd have thought twice about any other time of the year.
Instead of canceling Christmas altogether on account of zero gifts, emerge from the Christmas crunch, debt free, with armfuls of gifts by avoiding these big-time shopping and spending mistakes.
Not writing a gift list
If you have a gift list, and you check it twice, you'll know exactly what you need to buy for every person in your life you're gifting. It can help you brainstorm ideas, prioritize your shopping, and help you budget your holiday fund. The last-minute shopper might think it's pointless to make a gift list when time is of the essence. But that's exactly why you do need a gift list; it'll prevent you from racing around like a chicken with its head cut off, overspending frivolously or making unwise purchases you can't afford -- or that aren't appropriate for your recipients. Most of all, use your list to remember people, not just gifts. If you don't have a list for the targets of your gifting prowess, now is the time to start harassing them. There's nothing worse than going to Christmas dinner, gifting everyone but your little cousin, and enduring the awkward questions that ensue.
Using your credit card with the lowest limit
Certain personal finance opinions may advise you against using credit for your holiday shopping, since it can encourage going into debt and spending the New Year saddled with a high-interest balance. We're here to tell you that using credit responsibly during the holidays is perfectly fine; you may rely on credit a bit more than usual this time of year, but if you stay disciplined and pay your balance in full, you're in good shape. But avoid using the card in your wallet with the lowest balance, since the closer you come to reaching your spending limit, the worse your credit utilization ratio (the amount of credit you use versus the amount of credit available to you) looks to the credit bureaus who calculate your FICO score. Instead, reach exclusively for a card with a higher credit limit to avoid skewing your score on account of a last-minute shopping spree -- but follow the same principle, since using too much available credit on any card can skew your credit score.
Relying on gift cards as gifts
Gift cards may be a good choice for the recipient who's hard to shop for, or as a stocking stuffer or secondary gift. Giving nothing but gift cards can make you look like, 1) You didn't put any thought into Christmas, and 2) You waited until the last minute to shop and bought gift cards after every gift sold out (both of which are most likely true). Regardless of your reasoning , try personalizing the gift to make it more meaningful; buying your giftee a subscription to iTunes, Amazon Prime or Netflix, wrapping it with a bow, and including a pair of nice earbuds or a pillow or blanket for their viewing comfort complement the gift card nicely and make the experience more complete. And if gift cards aren't even an option, you might try a homemade gift; buy someone an experience that they'll remember for years; or give presence instead of presents.
Overbuying and overspending
Americans are expected to spend $655.8 billion this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation. But you may end up spending that much yourself when you're pressed for time and in a hurry to complete your last-minute Christmas shopping. Emotionally-driven shoppers tend to overbuy out of stress as a way of solving the problem and overspend as a result. The next thing you know, you've bought too many presents and spent more than you ever imagined to compensate for your last-minute shopping. Tapping into a good budgeting app can help you stay on target with your Christmas spending; others, like Giftagram or the RetailMeNot app alert you to coupons, discounts, and promo codes to save money even when shopping takes you into the eleventh hour.
Failing to stay focused
Racing against the clock to Christmas shop can lead to losing focus on what you're buying, ending you with a bunch of gifts in search of recipients instead of gifts that are well thought out and planned for the person you have in mind. It can also lead to shopping more for yourself than for others; studies have found that consumers on a major shopping excursion are prone to impulse buying for themselves and may spend more money than they originally intended (if the goal was clear to begin with) -- sometimes buying more gifts for themselves than for family and friends. To remain focused, incorporate a small gift into your gift giving budget. Not only will buying yourself a little something quell feeling of guilt from putting off your shopping until the last moment in the holiday season -- it'll keep you focused on your gift buying efforts, reminding you that to be good to others, sometimes you have to be good to yourself first.
A few years ago, I made the unenviable mistake of trekking to the local mall on Christmas Eve, battling and pushing my way through rabid crowds of consumers I had one regrettable thing in common with: We all waited until the very last minute to finish our holiday shopping. The sad part? I still didn't find what I went there for, and left empty handed.
Don't let this type of shopping disaster happen to you this holiday season or in the future. By planning ahead and organizing your finances, you'll shop with ease, save money and make Christmas special for you and your loved ones.
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