Posted on

How to Find the Best C.P.A. or Tax Accountant Near You

If you recoil at the thought of preparing your own tax return and wonder how you can find a good certified public accountant (C.P.A.) or tax accountant, you’re not alone. According to the I.R.S., of the more than 138 million tax returns e-filed through November 22, 2019 (for the 2018 tax year), about 58 percent were prepared by a tax professional.

At Wirecutter, a product review site owned by the New York Times, we have found that hiring a C.P.A. or tax pro can take the time-consuming and often frustrating task of deciphering I.R.S. rules and forms off your shoulders. However, hiring the wrong person can do more harm than good.

Each year, the I.R.S. compiles a “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams. Although the scams are wide-ranging, many of them include actions taken by shady tax preparers, such as promising inflated refunds, falsely claiming deductions and credits, or encouraging clients to avoid their tax obligations.

Unfortunately, just about anyone can become a paid tax preparer. Most states have few to no requirements for certification, training, or even competency testing.

So how do you find someone you can trust? Let us walk you through a three-step process to find a qualified C.P.A. or tax accountant near you.

Like with most service providers, a great way to find a C.P.A. or accountant is to ask for a referral. But don’t just go with the first name you get — compile a list of three or four potential accountants. Here’s how:

Dan Henn, a C.P.A. in Rockledge, Florida, said most of his business comes from referrals.

“Check with family, friends, business associates, co-workers, your attorney, financial adviser, or banker,” Mr. Henn said. “Find out who they use and if they’ve had a positive experience.”

C.P.A.s and accountants tend to focus on particular niches or specialties, such as small-business owners, high-net-worth individuals, or clients who work in certain industries. As a result, Mr. Henn recommends asking people you know with similar needs. “For example, if you’re a doctor, talk to other doctors and ask who they use,” he said.

The one qualification every paid tax preparer must have is a preparer tax identification number, or P.T.I.N. Anyone can apply for a P.T.I.N. online for free, so a P.T.I.N. alone isn’t indicative of the person’s skill or experience.

However, the I.R.S. maintains a directory of P.T.I.N. holders — such as C.P.A.s, enrolled agents (E.A.s), and attorneys — who have current credentials recognized by the I.R.S. The directory also includes people who have completed the Annual Filing Season Program, a series of voluntary continuing education classes covering federal tax law and ethics. Search the directory by ZIP code to find a C.P.A. or credentialed tax professional near you.

Many state boards of accountancy and state C.P.A. societies maintain online directories of members or can provide a list of tax pros in your area when asked. Not every C.P.A. prepares taxes, so you may need to do some research online or call to see if the people on your list provide the type of tax services you need.

E.A.s are federally licensed tax practitioners who are authorized to advise, represent, and prepare tax returns for individuals and businesses. The National Association of Enrolled Agents (N.A.E.A.) maintains a directory of E.A.s. You can search the directory by location, specialties, language, experience, and more.

If you make less than $56,000 per year or are age 60 and older, you may want to look into having your tax return prepared through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (T.C.E.) programs.

These programs are sponsored by the I.R.S. and staffed by volunteers trained to provide basic tax-prep services to the public free of charge. If you qualify, use the VITA/T.C.E. locator tool to find a provider near you.

According to the I.R.S., most VITA and T.C.E. sites won’t appear in your search results until about three weeks before they’re scheduled to open. If you search for a site outside of mid-January through April, you may have a difficult time finding one near you.

Once you find a location, check out the I.R.S.’s list of what to bring to your tax appointment before you go.

Once you’ve made a list of potential tax preparers near you, it’s time to zero in on who’s best. Here’s what to do:

If you got the tax preparer’s name from the I.R.S., your state board of accountancy, a state C.P.A. society, or the NAEA, their credentials are most likely legitimate. However, if you got the name through a referral, it’s a good idea to find out whether the person holds the certifications they claim to have.

Forty-seven states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam participate in C.P.A. Verify, an online central repository of information about licensed C.P.A.s and public accounting firms. Search cpaverify.org or your state’s board of accountancy website to verify the credentials of a C.P.A.

You can double-check the status of an E.A. at EATax.org.

Look at your potential C.P.A. or tax preparer’s website and social media accounts to see what sorts of things they post online. Read online reviews on Yelp, Google, Angie’s List, Thervo, and Facebook. Google their name to see what comes up — and scroll through the first few pages of search results to make sure nothing is buried.

Anybody who works with the public probably has a negative review posted by a disgruntled client. But if your research uncovers red flags like a pattern of client complaints, unprofessional social media posts, or an arrest record, move on to your next candidate.

Now that you’ve narrowed down your list to the most promising prospects, reach out and ask them to meet in person as soon as possible. But be warned: If you wait to make an appointment until the 2020 tax season is well underway, you may have a hard time finding someone who has time to sit down with you. Set up a meeting as soon as possible, even if you don’t yet have all of your tax documents ready.

When you meet with a potential accountant, bring a copy of your most recent tax return. Reviewing your latest return is one of the best ways for the tax pro to evaluate your situation and give you an idea of how much they might charge.

Be prepared to let your potential accountant know about any significant life changes you’ve experienced in the past year, like if you got married (or divorced), invested in rental property, or started a business.

Here are some key questions to ask during your meeting:

  • How long have you been preparing taxes? If your tax return is relatively simple, someone with just a couple of years of experience under their belt should be capable of handling it. But if your return is complicated or you’ve had problems with the I.R.S. in the past, you might want someone more experienced.

  • Do you have any specialties? If you have specific needs — maybe you own a small business or rental property, or you hold foreign investments — you should work with someone who specializes in working with clients like you.

  • How do you bill for your services? The accountant may not be able to give you an exact price at this initial meeting, but they should be able to give you an estimate — especially if you show them last year’s return. Find out whether they charge a flat fee or an hourly rate; either is fine, as long as you get an idea of how much it’ll cost you to have your return prepared.

  • Are you available for questions outside of tax season? Some tax preparers set up shop during tax season, only to disappear shortly after April 15. If something goes wrong after you file your return or you need help planning for next year, a seasonal tax preparer won’t be much help. Look for someone available year-round.

  • Who will prepare my return? If the accountant is part of a firm, the person you meet with might not be the one who prepares your return — they may hand it off to a less-experienced associate and merely review their work. While this can help keep your costs low, it’s good to know who’s actually doing the work.

If you don’t find a tax preparer or C.P.A. near you whom you feel comfortable working with, consider looking outside of your geographic location. Though many people prefer face-to-face meetings, you aren’t limited to C.P.A.s and tax advisors in your town.

Mr. Henn said he’s worked with many clients who feel funny about sharing their personal financial information with a tax preparer in their own town, so they work with someone in another city or state. “Because of technology like Skype and Zoom, secure portals, and electronic filing, you can work with accountants anywhere in the country,” he said.

It may be time to decide how important that face-to-face connection really is to you.

No matter who prepares your tax return, remember: You are ultimately responsible for its contents. Never sign a tax return before checking that it’s accurate. If you’re not sure about something, ask the preparer to explain it. When you sign your return — whether with a pen or electronically — you’re asserting under penalty of perjury that it’s complete and accurate.

Take the time to hire a reputable tax pro and review their work carefully to help ease your worries this tax season.

Sign up for the Wirecutter Weekly Newsletter and get our latest recommendations every Sunday.

A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.

Posted on

I Have $24 in My Savings Account. Can Microsavings Make Me a Better Saver?

I’m 24 years old and currently have $24 in my savings account.

My lack of savings isn’t unique. Young adults face a host of economic foes that stop them from saving. We’re hit with everything from the ever-increasing cost of living to medical bills to student loans to trying to actually have a life, all of which leaves little for the future.

But a new wave of microsavings apps claim to help people like me save more without drastically changing our habits (think saving $1 at a time, rather than $100). Generally, these apps take small amounts of money from a linked bank account and deposit the change into a designated savings or investment account. They promise that your money is safe and your data is encrypted and never sold.

Dan Ariely, behavioral psychologist (and chief behavioral economist at Qapital, one of the apps we tested for this article), said microsaving isn’t an alternative to saving money in more traditional ways. But thanks to the little wins you experience by microsaving, you may become motivated to start saving on a larger scale. “Among other things, it does have the potential to create a feeling of success and maybe even a habit,” Dr. Ariely said.

I know saving fifty bucks a month won’t set me up for retirement. But I need to start somewhere to create a savings mind-set and kick-start good habits, so I decided to test the effectiveness of microsavings apps and see how well they address a range of savings needs.

I narrowed down the list of apps for testing using certain criteria: They had to be insured, data-secure (within reason), and affordable. I looked at associated fees and asked what would happen with my personal information. After living with these apps for about a month, I managed to save some money without feeling deprived. In collaboration with Wirecutter, here are the four apps I tested and which ones I’d stick with.

Monthly fee: $5

How your information is handled: In its privacy policy, Digit says it doesn’t share your personal information with third parties for marketing purposes — but it does collect and share data for other reasons. It also uses your data to tailor its internal ads and offers.

Insurance: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (F.D.I.C.) insured up to $250,000

Digit siphons spare change from your linked checking account. You can set multiple savings goals — think rainy day funds or extra student loan payments — and the app automatically allocates different amounts to each one. You can also connect your credit cards and loans to the app, which enables Digit to actually send your designated savings to those synced accounts. And once you need your money, you can easily transfer it from Digit back to your checking account.

It’s easy to set up and use, and the automated savings go practically unnoticed. I appreciated Digit’s simple, appealing design and relatable lingo. I saved $92.67 in four weeks (including two $5 referral bonuses). I consistently came back to the app at the end of each day, eager to see what I’d saved and be reminded of what I’m saving for.

Don’t worry about saving more than what you’re comfortable with, either. Digit offers a feature called Overdraft Prevention, which pauses the automated savings when it notices you have an account balance lower than a predetermined “safe level” (mine is set at $25), or when you have a big payment coming up on a linked debt (like a student loan or credit card).

Unfortunately, Digit also charges a $5 monthly fee, so you have to deduct that from what you save. That being said, $5 is basically the cost of a Starbucks coffee. For me, it’s a no-brainer to give up one latte to save almost $100 a month without a second thought.

Monthly fee: $3 for Basic membership, $6 for Complete, and $12 for Master

How your information is handled: According to its privacy policy, Qapital does not sell your personal information to third parties, though it does authorize some third-party tracking for behavioral advertising purposes. (You can opt out of those practices through the Network Advertising Initiative and Digital Advertising Alliance websites.)

Insurance: F.D.I.C. insured up to $250,000

Qapital operates similarly to Digit in that it takes spare change from your checking account, but how much is transferred is based on certain savings “rules” you opt in to.

With the “Round Up” rule, for instance, you decide how much you want to round up each of your transactions, and the extra change is deposited into your Qapital account. Other savings rules include “Set and Forget” (establishes recurring automatic transfers), “Payday” (saves a set percentage of each deposit to your funding account), and “Spend Less” (saves the difference when you spend less than your target budget). However, the plethora of options felt a little overwhelming, and the app’s bland design is unappealing, despite all of my customization efforts.

For what it’s worth, I did end up saving about $78 with Qapital’s “Round Up” option. Also, the least-expensive monthly membership is $2 cheaper than Digit, which may be the tipping point if you’re really looking to save every extra penny. You can create an investment portfolio with Qapital’s higher membership tiers, but I’d stick with Basic for your microsavings needs.

Monthly fee: $1 for Invest, $2 for Invest + Later, $3 for Invest + Later + Spend

How your information is handled: According to its privacy policy, none of your personal information is sold to third parties, and Acorns does not share your information for the purposes of third-party marketing.

Insurance: Securities Investor Protection Corporation insured up to $500,000; not F.D.I.C. insured

Like other microsavings apps, Acorns rounds up your purchases and saves the difference — but instead of the funds being deposited into a regular savings account, you’re investing them in a portfolio of exchange-traded funds (E.T.F.s) comprised of stocks and bonds (in partnership with investment management companies Vanguard and BlackRock).

Because you’re saving “change” you may not have missed otherwise, the earnings can help show the value of investing without sacrificing too much of your spending. And by starting early, you can familiarize yourself with how investment portfolios work while watching yours grow over time.

You can’t pick a sole company to invest in — Acorn recommends a particular mix of E.T.F.s based on your financial situation, goals, and the level of risk you’re willing to take on (your options are conservative, moderately conservative, moderate, moderately aggressive, and aggressive). You can see which E.T.F.s you’re investing in based on your particular portfolio, though.

That said, you do have the potential to lose money with Acorns. Markets aren’t always stable, and the value of your portfolio can fluctuate up and down accordingly. And although this may not seem like the best way to sock away money if you’re someone like me — remember, I have only $24 in my savings account — it can be a good option if you have a little more flexibility and an interest in learning how to invest long term.

Annual fee: $0 for a basic account, $9.99 for Pro

How your information is handled: According to its privacy policy, Tip Yourself does not directly sell your personal information to third parties, but de-identified data can be shared with companies, organizations, or individuals outside of Tip Yourself when it has your consent to do so.

Insurance: F.D.I.C. insured up to $250,000

Tip Yourself left me the least engaged, as its whole premise is that you have to decide when to save money — which was what I struggled with in the first place. The app works like this: You “tip yourself” when something good happens (such as when you go to the gym or get a promotion). The money then goes into an insured savings account through the app, though it can easily be transferred back into your checking account when you need it. But what if you have a bad month — heck, a bad six months — and nothing happens that incentivizes you to save?

You’re also supposed to be motivated by seeing others tip themselves on a social feed similar to Venmo.

I never left myself a tip, as I never felt inclined to do so. However, Tip Yourself may be a good option if you aren’t comfortable with automated savings apps and want to maintain control over how much you save and when.

Before testing these apps, I wasn’t sure if I would save any more than usual. It’s just spare change, so how much of a difference could it really make? I kept spending and spending as I normally would.

But by the end of month, I had saved $99 — and I didn’t feel any pain. What I did take notice of is what I typically spend my money on (like dinners out) and how often, as well as how I could do better (like putting more of that dinner money away, or at least the spare change from it).

Using microsavings apps shouldn’t be your forever savings strategy, but it can work for the time being. The positive reinforcement of watching your savings grow can work wonders on how you choose to save for the rest of your life.

Editorial note: The evaluations of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

Sign up for the Wirecutter Weekly Newsletter and get our latest recommendations every Sunday.

A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.

Posted on

Your Credit Card Benefits Just Got Cut. What Do You Do?

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, one of the most popular travel rewards cards we’ve seen over at Wirecutter, recently dropped some news: The perks are going up a little bit, and the annual fee is going up a lot.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve’s $450 annual fee just went up to $550 for new users (the new rate kicks in for existing users whenever your renewal date rolls around, starting in April 2020). The increased fee is paired with a handful of new perks, like DoorDash credits and a Lyft Pink membership.

Many banks besides Chase are truncating or cutting beloved credit card benefits, and many are also raising their credit cards’ annual fees. In 2019, American Express hiked the annual fees on certain Delta-branded credit cards and instituted new restrictions on Centurion Lounge access. MarketWatch reported last year that Citi ended its Price Rewind feature.

Credit card issuers are raking in revenue at a rapid clip, and higher annual fees are likely a big contributor: Annual fee revenue was about $600 million in the first quarter of 2015, but by the first quarter of 2018, it had nearly doubled to a whopping $1 billion, according to 2019 Consumer Credit Market report (PDF) by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (C.F.P.B.), a government agency that helps protect people from unfair business practices.

If the Reserve or any other card broke your heart, and you’re ready to break up with it, you’ve got options.

Banks have the legal right to stop offering you benefits like statement credits and lounge access, even if they provided them to you when you originally signed up. They also have the right to change the rates and fees from what you agreed to in the first place (though limitations may apply).

And although banks have to give you notice about changes to your rates and fees, they’re not legally required to give you advance notice of changes to your rewards. Some banks do anyway: For example, Amex gave cardholders about three months’ notice when it decided to stop offering the Priority Pass restaurant credit.

The good news: For significant changes (such as adjustments to rates and fees, or how your interest is calculated), your card issuer is required to give you 45 days’ notice, according to the C.F.P.B.

Credit card companies face limits on how drastically they can change their terms, so you don’t need to worry about a sudden and astronomical increase to your late fees, for example. (The government regulates many aspects related to credit card fees, including a rule that banks can’t charge you more than $28 for your first late payment.)

In short, federal regulations exist to protect you from predatory practices, but not so much from changes to your Centurion Lounge access or your frequent flier miles.

But even when it feels like your card issuer is taking away the small things that bring you joy, you’re not exactly powerless.

First, decide whether your card is still worth keeping in its current incarnation, particularly if it has an annual fee. If you decide to break up with your credit card, you have three main options.

In some cases, you may be able to downgrade your card to a similar, no annual fee version offered by the same bank. (For example, because the $450 Chase Sapphire Reserve will now cost you $550, you could consider downgrading it to the $0 annual fee Chase Freedom Unlimited.)

With most banks, you can call customer service to make this request.

Pros of downgrading your card: Whether you don’t want to cancel your card and lose your line of credit, or you just don’t want to forgo the points or miles you’ve accrued, downgrading to another card from the same bank might mean you can keep your existing rewards, as well as your line of credit.

Typically, downgrading (or upgrading) your card keeps your card number and account history the same, and it usually won’t result in another inquiry on your credit report. But it does mean you get an updated C.V.V. (a three- or four-digit anti-fraud security code) and expiration date.

Cons of downgrading your card: Banks aren’t legally required to offer you the option to downgrade, so there’s no guarantee that you can do this. If that’s the case, you’re better off just canceling your card. Also, in some situations, downgrading could cause your points to lose some of their value. For example, if you hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your points are worth 50 percent more when you redeem them for travel in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, which means one point is actually worth 1.5 cents. But if you downgrade to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, you lose the ability to spend your points via Chase Ultimate Rewards, so each point is worth just 1 cent.

In some cases, when you call your bank to cancel your card, it will present you with a retention offer. Retention offers vary depending on the card (and on you as a cardholder), but your bank may be able to adjust its terms and conditions to encourage you to hang on to your card. Those terms could include anything from waived or reduced annual fees to bonus points when you meet a minimum spending threshold.

Online reports of successful retention offers abound. One American Express Platinum cardholder, for example, said on the site Miles to Memories that they were offered 20,000 Membership Rewards points (worth about $400, according to The Points Guy’s valuations) if they spent $3,000 with their card in the next three months. You’re not guaranteed a similar offer (or any offer at all), but it could be worth asking if you’re not already committed to canceling.

Pros of canceling your credit card: If your card’s terms and conditions just aren’t worth it anymore, it might make sense for you to cancel it, especially if you pay an annual fee.

To cancel your card, you can typically call your card issuer’s customer service number. Remember, though, to pay off your balance after: According to the C.F.P.B., the credit card company can still charge you interest on the amount you owe, even when your account is closed.

Cons of canceling your credit card: Closing your account could negatively impact your credit score because it lowers the overall amount of credit you have available to you. (Assuming your spending remains the same, your credit utilization ratio — one of the major components of your score — increases when you cancel a card.) Depending on how long you had the card, canceling it could shorten the length of your credit history, which also affects your score.

Pro tip: You may be able to cancel your card and not pay another year of annual fees, even if your next year as a cardholder has already begun. For example, if you’re a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder, you can get your annual fee refunded when you notify Chase that you want to close your account within 30 days (or one billing cycle) after you receive the statement in which your annual fee was billed.

That said, you may want to use your credit card’s newly reduced benefits as an excuse to cut down on the number of cards in your wallet. Holding tons of credit cards might not be worth the organizational headache. And when you split your spending among more than one card — such as hotel, cash back, and airline credit cards — you may never earn enough rewards to book your dream vacation to Maui.

“People think they need a Chase card, and an Amex card, and a United card,” said David Feldman, an independent analyst of credit cards and rewards programs. “Then they have 50 cards but only 1,000 points in each account, and it’s not enough to pay for anything.”

Instead, consider sticking to one or two cards with which you can accrue meaningful rewards. This could help you earn enough points on your travel credit card so that you can book a flight or hotel room entirely with rewards, for instance, or spend enough with your Southwest Rapid Rewards card to qualify for a Companion Pass so that you and a buddy can travel the world.

Editorial note: The evaluations of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

Sign up for the Wirecutter Weekly Newsletter and get our latest recommendations every Sunday.

A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.

Posted on

What to Do if You Overspent During the Holidays

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.

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.

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.

[Like what you’re reading? Sign up here for the Smarter Living newsletter to get stories like this (and much more!) delivered straight to your inbox every Monday morning.]

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.

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.

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.

Sign up for the Wirecutter Weekly Newsletter and get our latest recommendations every Sunday.

A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.