Written by Chloe Metzger, editorial intern
It’s that time of year again! The holidays are upon us, marking a major increase in family gatherings, festive parties and, of course, shopping. But between Black Friday sales and dinner party planning, our wallets take a beating as soon as the weather changes. According to Mint.com, a personal money management service, the average American spent a whopping $384 on shopping last December alone, almost 33 percent more than what they spent in September. So how can you stay in the holiday spirit without going over budget? We chatted with Hitha Prabhakar, retail expert and Mint.com Financial Advocate, to get the scoop on how to cut costs on the four most common—and unexpected—money drainers. Read on to start saving!
Buying presents Spending limits can seem impossible to stick to when the holidays come around, leading to some pretty unhealthy buying habits. Luckily, you can actually stay within your budget without becoming scrooge-tastic, says Prabhakar. When it comes to gift-giving, repeat after us: It’s the thought that counts. “If you’re in a tight financial spot, focus on presentation,” recommends Prabhakar. “DIY gifts like frames, knitted socks or baked goods are always a hit, especially when you spend time wrapping them in pretty paper, containers or recycled bags.”
Grocery shopping At the beginning of each month, set specific budgets for yourself for food expenditures, including week-to-week groceries and special occasions. Of course, when it comes to shopping for an upcoming dinner party, cutting corners can seem tricky. “According to the 2012 Intuit Consumer Index, Americans spent an average of $322.29 per month on groceries,” says Prabhakar. “That can really add up over the year. Don't be afraid to purchase items that are store brand, especially when you’re entertaining for a large group. They tend to be much cheaper and taste the same.”
Going to the gym We’ve all been there: The temperature drops below freezing, and suddenly your favorite morning run seems way less appealing than the weight room. If you decide to switch to the gym-life when the winter weather peaks, make sure you’re not wasting cash by sitting in the house. “On average, people spent $83.73 per month on gym memberships in 2012, so get your money’s worth by going frequently,” says Prabhakar. “You can also think about taking your budgeted gym funds and purchasing blocks of classes at smaller studios. To get new students in the door, these smaller studios often offer discounted classes or trial periods at a tenth of the cost of regular classes.” (We love Groupon and Living Social for finding awesome discounts on fun classes and personal training sessions!)
Dining out “Last year, the average American spent $2,654.69 on dining out,” says Prabhakar, “And I used to be that person who went to restaurants 15 times a week and used my oven as storage for my shoes!” To cut down on her eating-out expenses, Prabhakar created a "restaurant only" budget in Mint.com and signed up to be alerted when she was low on balances. (We tested the Mint.com app, and totally agree that it’s extremely helpful for staying on track with easy-to-forget entertainment expenses). If you’ve almost reached your budget and have to dine out, try pre-gaming (meal-style!) beforehand. “Have a quick and healthy appetizer at home prior to dinner, so you feel fuller and order less from the menu,” suggests Prabhakar.