Healing the holiday hurt: A tough season to avoid overspending

For many, the magic of the holiday season can induce a sort of magical thinking -- a belief that our lavish generosity will somehow pay for itself in the year ahead.

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For many, the magic of the holiday season can induce a sort of magical thinking - a belief that our lavish generosity will somehow pay for itself in the year ahead.

And then the credit card bills come.

December is one of the quietest months for credit counselors at the Duluth offices of Lutheran Social Service, said Program Director Elaina Johannessen.

"People are in the holiday Christmas-shopping mode, and they're going to do what they want to do," she said, noting that many people don't want to think about their finances at this time of year.

But the lull won't last for financial counselors. Johannessen said late January typically brings a flurry of activity as credit card bills come due.


"Reality sets in, and you realize that now I have this debt that I have to pay" she said.

American consumers will spend an average of $1,007 this holiday season on gifts, food, decorations and other seasonal trappings, according to a report by the National Retail Federation.

Many people will carry holiday debts into the new year. A survey by LendEDU showed 22 percent of people expected to go into debt because of holiday spending this year.

But even more people than that actually do, according to a report by NerdWallet which found 28 percent of American consumers this winter are still paying off debt from the previous year's holiday season.

To avoid overspending, Johannesen encourages people to make a detailed budget and stick to it.

She also said that avoiding credit cards and paying in cash can be a useful strategy. Set aside a certain sum of money for gifts, and when that cash is gone, be done with your shopping.

Lutheran Social Service expects it will assist more than 10,000 people in Duluth with their finances. Often, when people finally seek help, their debt has grown to such a level that it takes months to address.

Johannessen said staying on track with a debt repayment plan and exercising financial discipline can be especially challenging around this time of year.


"At Christmastime we want to buy lots of things for our kids, for our families, for our friends. So, it's hard to break that cycle," she said.

"But I always ask: Would your mom or your brother want you to go into debt for you to buy them something?" Johannessen said. She suggests having frank conversations with family members when money is tight.

Johannessen said people should consider alternatives to material possessions.

"If it's with children, spend a day with them, do crafts, make baked goods, and that can also provide gifts for other people... So it's doubly good," she said.

Johannessen suggests leveling with children who are old enough to understand.

"If they're a little bit older, I think you can have that discussion and be honest and just say: This Christmas, we want to spend time together and do things together. Be honest. You don't want to get into the details and freak them out or anything, but you can tell them we don't necessarily have much money this year," she said.

Such conversations may feel awkward, but Johannessen said parents who are willing to have them teach their children the value of financial responsibility.

For younger children who aren't old enough to grasp money concerns, Johannessen said modest gifts can easily fit the bill. She noted that expensive gifts are often lost on little ones.


"Make some memories. Go sledding. Make a snowman. Do things, because kids are going to remember that a whole lot more than a gift, in the long run," she said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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