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Make a list, check it twice, stick to budget

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • December 3, 2011 - 10:09 PM

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are history -- thankfully! Sales look reasonably robust, although mostly for stuff sold at a discount. Many Wall Street analysts are forecasting that this holiday season people will borrow a little more and save a little bit less. Nothing crazy, mind you, but maybe enough to lead to a case of the credit-card blues in January.

My advice: Set a budget. Make a list. And stick to your budget.

Don't get me wrong. I love the holidays. There's nothing good to say about being cheap during the holidays. Problem is, for too long we've equated generosity with buying lots of things, far too much of it bought on credit.

A lot of sophisticated advertising dollars are being spent to persuade you to spend. That's why setting a budget and sticking to it are crucial. It's also good to use cash instead of a credit card whenever possible.

An even more important discipline is spending time thinking about mindful gifts. These gifts are simple gestures that honor the values of the people you're giving presents. It isn't about stuff. It's about thoughtfulness. For instance, it might be hand-knit mittens (not from me, though; I don't know how to knit), a charitable donation (among my favorite gifts to give), an evening of free baby-sitting for new parents, and so on.  

Last, I'd think about the "opportunity cost" of holiday spending. Whenever you make a decision to do something, you foreclose other options. Economists call the value of the goods and services you sacrificed in undertaking any activity an "opportunity cost." Thinking about opportunity cost helps all of us better understand the return we expect from our choices.

For instance, if you're sitting in a chair reading this column, you aren't doing something else, such as taking a walk around a lake or reading a book. If you spend too much during the holidays you won't build up savings, your financial safety net and your opportunity fund. If you spend now, what are you giving up?

These famous lines from poet Robert Frost capture the idea best:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Most people are on the path of trying to save more and borrow less. They're asking themselves: "What really matters?" and "What are my values?'' These are the right questions to ask, especially during the holidays.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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