Thanks to credit cards and one-click shopping, it’s almost inconceivable to get from Black Friday (which is now more of a mind-set than a specific day) to the new year without dipping your card or entering its numbers at a digital checkout. According to the National Retail Federation, shoppers expected to spend a little more than $1,000 this holiday season, while some are probably still dealing with debt from last year.
That can make facing the aftermath of your holiday festivities feel as daunting as actually honoring your New Year’s resolutions. You might prefer to pretend all that spending didn’t occur rather than confront the engorged receipts, but you don’t want to start 2020 in the hole. Here’s how to get back on track.
Retrain your brain to stop shopping
You know that feeling when you’re racing 80 miles per hour on a highway, then you take an exit and suddenly find yourself blazing through city streets without realizing it? That’s called “velocitization.” Something similar happens after the holidays. You’re so used to buying constantly that your internal controls go berserk and your credit card balance balloons.
It’s a new year, and you need to ease back into a normal, healthy routine so you have the runway to reestablish your emergency fund or chip away at any debt.
“Hopefully you feel good about the special gifts you bought,” said Misty Lynch, head of financial planning at John Hancock, a Boston-based life insurance company. “But now it’s time for a bit of detox.”
Ms. Lynch suggested a few simple steps to help slow down the buying impulse in your brain. Unsubscribe from retailer email lists so you don’t see that post-holiday deal and unsave your credit card information from store websites. Avoid social media and all of those targeted ads — “anything you can do to make spending less convenient,” Ms. Lynch said.
In fact, try to avoid stores, both online and brick-and-mortar, altogether. Once you enter the retail world, every bit of stimulus is just another incentive to spend.
Stop being an ostrich and audit your credit card debt
Most people don’t like to look at their finances when stuff goes south; they check their investments less when the market is down and they avoid their bank accounts when they have a negative balance. We hate to lose more than we love to win.
The same thing happens when we spend too much. A recent paper observed this so-called ostrich effect when it found that people who received a higher-than-usual spending alert via their bank app were less likely to log in to their account in the following days compared with someone who didn’t get an alert at all. People felt “psychological discomfort” from the negative implications of the message, said Sung Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in finance at New York University and the paper’s author.
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Accepting that you have a problem, though, is a crucial step in right sizing your finances. When you feel a flutter of anxiety as you log in to your account, know that you’re doing the right thing.
Begin with simple tasks to give yourself the mettle to go forward. Download your year-end credit card statements and separate your November and December spending from the rest of the year. (Or do the same thing digitally with You Need A Budget, our preferred budgeting app.)
Then assess what just happened. Did you spend more than you intended to, or more than you could afford? Do some cards have a balance that’s too big to completely pay off? Perhaps you could redeem the cash back rewards you amassed to reduce what you owe.
Awareness is paramount because ignored debt doesn’t go away — it metastasizes. Even if you pay the minimum amount due on your bill, the rest will be assessed interest, the average rate for which is currently around 17 percent.
Plus, it will help you raze the debt for good.
Divide and conquer your debt
If your audit reveals a healthy portion of red tape, don’t beat yourself up. You’re not alone. Those who fall into debt over the holidays typically end up owing about $1,000 on their credit cards, according to annual surveys from Magnify Money, and about half of all borrowers revolve a payment at least once a year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Categorize your debt into one of two categories: quick payoff or longer payoff.
Quick payoff: If you can pay off your balance within a few months, set up automatic payments so you can wind it down while accruing as little interest as possible. This is a pretty straightforward proposition if you’re carrying a balance on just one card. Life gets more complicated if multiple I.O.U.s bedraggle your bottom line.
In that case (and in keeping with the frosty theme), we recommend snowballing your debt payments. Rather than paying down the balance with the highest interest rate, attack your lowest balance first. The good cheer that comes from that accomplishment will give you the necessary positive momentum to go after your next-largest debt.
You should also call your issuers and request a lower interest rate. This tactic may seem a bit on the nose, but it can be surprisingly successful — a 2018 survey by CreditCards.com found that 56 percent of people who asked for a lower interest rate got one. However, only one in four cardholders even asked in the first place.
Long payoff: Big debts will require a bit more work. One clean solution, especially if you have multiple cards in the red, is to take out a personal loan. You’ll be able to consolidate your debt into one monthly payment, and you may be able to get an interest rate lower than what you’re currently paying on your credit cards (although personal loan interest rates can exceed 20 percent, depending on things like your credit history). Personal loans have become more popular, so shop around for rates before you commit.
Any of Wirecutter Money’s recommended balance transfer cards will give you a long period of zero percent A.P.R., during which time you can retire your debt interest-free — but in many cases, you’ll be charged a percentage of what you transfer as a one-time fee.
With that time comes freedom that may get you into trouble, though. A personal loan is repaid in fixed monthly payments over a set number of months, while a balance transfer leaves the business of repayment entirely up to you. Go the balance transfer route only if you’ve got the gumption to pay off your debt before interest kicks in.
Start saving for the holidays today
Auditing your credit cards and consolidating your debt aren’t exactly “fun.” But that’s the price of going out over your skis. Use the time between now and next year’s holiday season to get ready.
You can look for a bank or credit union that offers a Christmas club account, something we’re particularly fond of, or you can get really creative: In 2018, NBC told the story of one woman who saved $40,000 over 13 years by stockpiling every $5 bill she received, while Wirecutter has previously reported on how starting a saving circle with a group of friends can be an easy way to accumulate cash.
At the very least, go back to your spending audit to get a sense of how much you’ll likely dish out during the upcoming holiday season. Working backward from that number, set up autosave to put a small portion of each paycheck you receive in a bank account (most banks will let you give it a funny name, like “stocking stuffer”). This should cover next year’s spree in full and help you avoid overspending again.
The assessment of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.