Christmas shopping hangover no more: Build a holiday budget to avoid credit card debt

Don't let the holidays bury you in credit card debt.
Don't let the holidays bury you in credit card debt.

As tempting as it might be to shower your loved ones with expensive gifts this holiday season, you should resist doing it – at least with credit cards, experts say.

Surveys point to surging credit card debt that could harm people for years, these experts warn, with the total swelling to a record $1.08 trillion this year, according to the New York Federal Reserve.  Forty percent of Americans are already starting the holidays with more credit card debt than a year ago, a survey by investment bank D.A. Davidson showed last month. And 48% will end the holidays in more debt, according to a different survey by Debt Hammer, a site devoted to helping people manage debt.

Making the situation worse, average credit card interest rates sit at a record high. Delinquency rates also are climbing, especially for those between ages 30 and 39, the NY Fed said. In 2022, credit card companies charged consumers over $105 billion in interest and more than $25 billion in fees, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said.


All those trends point to one solution.

“Only spend what you can afford to pay off by your credit card’s due date, if you can manage it,” said John Kiernan, editor at personal finance site WalletHub.

Credit card debt is soaring in the face of rising inflation. Interest rates for credit card debt are at an all-time high.
Credit card debt is soaring in the face of rising inflation. Interest rates for credit card debt are at an all-time high.

With that in mind, here’s a list of 12 steps experts recommend to avoid a holiday debt hangover:

On the first day of the holiday shopping season, make a list of people to give to.

On the second day of the holiday season, make a budget. A holiday-specific budget can help you avoid overspending, so figure out how much you want to spend on things like gifts, decorations, food, travel and tips for service providers. Use what you spent last year as a starting point. If your income is lower this year, think about what you can do differently to help lower costs. It’s possible you may be able to find some automatic savings if, for instance, you decide not to travel or host a smaller holiday dinner this year.

On the third day of the holiday season, use a budget calculator if you need more than just pencil and paper to help set limits on your holiday spending.

On the fourth day of the holiday season, give a gift to yourself first. Set aside money for holiday gifts, of course, but do something for your own finances, like replenishing an emergency fund or maximizing your retirement contributions.

On the fifth day of the holiday season, consider made-with-love gifts. Bake, knit, sew, or make candles, for example. Or cut down on gifts by sending something a whole family can enjoy instead of individual gifts, like a gift card to their favorite retailer or a gift basket of yummy treats.

On the sixth day of the holiday season, manage expectations. If you must cut back, alert your friends and family about the type of holiday you’re planning so they can adjust to the idea that things may be different.

On the seventh day of the holiday season, commit to going all cash. It may be easier to say "charge it,” but for many people, handling physical money makes spending feel more tangible, prompting them to more highly value what they buy, Willie Arroyo, financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, said.

On the eighth day of the season, say no to retail cards. Retailers like Best Buy and Amazon will try to entice you with discounts and deferred interest if you sign up for their credit card. Don’t fall for it. Unless you’re sure you can pay off the balance, they could make your holiday shopping up to 27.5 times more expensive than you’re planning for because rates on those cards are among the highest.

On the ninth day of the season, use your rewards. About 70% of Americans fail to spend them. Consider using miles to pay for a plane ticket to your in-laws, or credit card points to cover co-worker gift cards or part of the price of an item on your kid’s wish list.

On the tenth day of the season, dust off old gift cards. Forty-seven percent of Americans have unused cards with an average total value of $187 per person, a YouGov survey in June found. You can use cards to purchase gifts -- or exchange or sell them.

Also, don't worry if the gift card is several years old. You'll likely be able to use it. Federal law gives you at least five years to use a card from the time it was activated -- and states may give you even longer.

Also, if you're buying online and the gift card doesn't go through because it's old, call customer service for help. If the representative can't resolve the issue, don't be afraid to ask for their manager, who may have more leeway to help you.

On the eleventh day of the shopping season, pull out unused gifts. If someone gave you something that wasn’t for you and it’s still in pristine condition, don’t be afraid to regift it to someone who might like it.

On the twelfth day of the holiday season, shop secondhand. You won’t be alone. A Morning Consult poll last month showed that 38% of consumers will “definitely” or “probably” buy gifts secondhand. Among those who feel financially stressed, that number rises to 46%, it said.

Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to build a holiday budget to avoid credit card debt at Christmas