’Tis the season to go into debt. And if you’re like many Americans, you won’t pay off your holiday debt till next winter.
(Seriously, poll after poll shows a third of us go into one holiday season still owing money from last holiday season.)
My holiday gloom started early this year. WalletHub released a new poll last week with this distressing nugget: “1 in 4 people think winter travel is worth going into debt for.”
The WalletHub poll doesn’t ask why a quarter of us are willing to spend more on holiday travel than we have in our bank accounts. But after a decade as Debt.com’s editor, I know why.
The reason is really gut-wrenching: We think we’re helping our families. We’re making memories, reforging bonds, and sharing a wholesome time. It’s worth a little red ink for all that.
No, it isn’t.
If you can’t wipe out that red ink right away, it bleeds into every part of your life – and the lives of your loved ones. You might make your family happy this December, but you’re quite literally ruining their lives for years to come.
I know that sounds like melodramatic hyperbole. Ten years at Debt.com tells me otherwise. Don’t believe me?
Let’s do the math
Suppose you spend $2,000 you don’t have on the holidays this winter. You use your credit cards now and expect to pay them off later.
Here’s the problem: Credit card interest rates are averaging 22% these days. That’s the average. Yours might be lower, but it could be even higher. Let’s be charitable and say your cards charge you 20% interest.
In January, you don’t pay off those holiday bills. In February, you owe $2,400. But you probably won’t pay them off then, either. Most people don’t.
Other polls from the likes of WalletHub, MoneyGeek, and LendingTree typically show that upwards of 40 million American adults don’t pay off their winter holiday debt until April or May.
That means you’ll run up hundreds more in interest charges. And of course, your credit cards don’t just contain those holiday travel charges. The average adult carries a balance of nearly $8,000, according to federal data.
If you’re average, that means you owe more than $1,500 a month in interest. Add your $2,000 in holiday expenses on top of that, and you can see just how much money you’re denying your family later on.
Think about it. You could easily pay your credit card company $3,000 for your $2,000 holiday travels. What could you do for your family with an extra $1,000?
Holiday cheer that’s financially fun
We need to break ourselves from the idea that going into debt for our family is a “good” kind of debt. The only good debt is one that costs you nothing.
A mortgage is often considered a good debt because, if it’s affordable, you’re actually building wealth while increasing your standard of living. And, of course, that helps your family today and for many years to come.
But going into credit card debt to support your family now often means limiting their options later. If you want to help your family, encourage holiday cheer that costs little but is still enjoyable – and maybe even educational. Here are some easy ideas…
- One idea that definitely doesn’t apply to me: Make your own gifts. I’m not handy at anything, but if you are, this is an affordable way to be adorable. Making your own gifts often gets a bad rap, because some people think it’s just a cheap way out of buying expensive gifts. And they’re right. But these gifts can be amazing because they’re personal. So if you can knit a sweater or build a jewelry box, those will be treasured items for years to come. Don’t forget, your gift is one of many. So it’s not like your friends or family aren’t going to get lots of store-bought presents anyway. Why not make yours special?
- If you can’t make a gift, you can probably assemble one. It’s usually much cheaper – and a lot more fun – to make your own gift baskets for friends and family. You already know what they like, whether it’s their favorite brand of chocolate or their preferred coffee. Gift baskets don’t have to be about just food, either. You can assemble one for hair and skin care, incense and candles, and kitchen utensils.
- This one is especially good for the kids: Don’t buy, do. Have them give out personal coupons for cleaning the yard, shoveling snow, washing the car, and other chores that often require a lot of nagging. Instead of them begging for cash to buy you gifts, you’ll save your own money and teach them the value of not only a dollar, but also of work.
The bottom line here is: The holidays don’t have to ruin your bottom line. There are ways to celebrate with friends and family without spending more than you have. If you don’t do it for your family, then do it for me. Because I don’t know if I can handle another holiday season of short-sighted survey results.