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10 Smart Ideas to Stretch Your Holiday Budget

The holidays can be tough on an educator’s wallet, but with these 10 tips from NEA Member Benefits, you can give more and spend less.

If you’re tempted to apply for a loan to finance the winter holidays, you’re not alone. Individual shoppers spent an average of over $800 during the 2014 season, according to the National Retail Federation.

Where did it all go? An estimated $459 was spent on gifts for family members and $80 on gifts for friends; nearly $105 on food; just under $54 on decorations; and about $29 on greeting cards, among other goodies.

All of that can add up to a major burden on an educator’s salary. Consider these budget-friendly tips to take the sting out of your holiday spending:

1. Be an informed shopper.

The only way to know if you’re getting a good price on a good product is to do your research. These days, people shop in several stages. Sometimes we research online, then go to a store to make a purchase. Other times, we browse in stores, then search online for better prices.

There are some great tools to help you hunt down the best price either way: Comparison-shop on sites such as PriceGrabber.com and Shopzilla.com, or use apps such as ShopAdvisor in-store.

Those kinds of apps let you scan barcodes, see online and local prices, and read reviews—all while you’re in the store. You can even sign up to have an email alert sent to you when your desired price is met.

Digital coupons—both in person and online—can help you squeeze a few more dollars off your bill. For in-store shopping, check out apps such as Coupon Sherpa and Shopular that compile mobile coupons to be scanned at the register.

Before hitting the “buy” button on your online purchase, search the retailer name and “promotional code” to find limited-time discounts posted by websites such as RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com.

2. Let the sales come to you.

Sign up for emails and texts from your favorite retailers and comparison-shopping websites to be alerted to steep holiday discounts.

Through NEA Member Benefits, you can sign up to receive “Season’s Savings” emails, stuffed with great special discounts for NEA members, from mid-November through mid-December. Visit the “My Newsletters” tab under “My Account” to subscribe.

3. Use your plastic.

Years ago, there was a negative stigma associated with using credit to shop during the holidays. These days, credit-card companies and retailers provide generous discounts/cash-back rewards for using their cards.

“Some credit cards offer as much as 5 percent back on department store and Amazon purchases in the last three months of the year,” says Jodi Furman, author of “Live fabuLESS!,” which focuses on living an upscale life on a “regular” salary. “In addition, stores will market credit/debit cards that offer ‘deep’ discounts—like 20 percent instead of 15 percent—for new applicants and existing cardholders.”

However, if you allow interest on these purchases to build up, you’ll essentially give back that discount—and then some. “To avoid interest charges, immediately pay off the total amount you just charged,” Furman says. “You can even pay the bill with your smartphone before you leave the store. This means you’ll get all the advantages of a card—and no risk.”

4. Get rewarded.

If you’re using a credit card, you might as well use one that pays you back in cash or points for the purchases you’re making. The rewards you earn on these types of cards really can add up. Need a good rewards credit card? Check out the card NEA Member Benefits offers. You’ll earn 1 percent cash back on everything, 2 percent cash back on groceries and 3 percent cash back on gasoline.

5. Stock your wallet with big bills.

This sounds counterintuitive, but having large denominations in your wallet has been proven to limit spending habits. “People are more reluctant to break up large bills than small ones,” says consumer finance expert Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network, “so pack $50s in your wallet rather than $20s and $10s.”

6. Shop based on value, not a predetermined amount.

It’s good to designate spending limits for each immediate family member and others on your “nice” list. But keep in mind that this is a ceiling, not a quota. You still can give that much value in a present while staying well under your limit.

“Let’s say you find an amazing sweater that you know would normally go for $49.99, but it’s on sale during the holidays for under $30,” says Mary Hunt, author of “Debt-Proof Your Christmas” and founder of DebtProofLiving.com. “Don’t assume you have to spend another $20 on your sister to meet a preconceived requirement that you must spend the full $50 you allotted. Your mission is complete.”

Create and manage your shopping list, including maximum budget amounts, in present-tracking apps such as GiftPlanner and mGifts.

7. Buy gift cards for less than face value.

Many warehouse stores sell them for well under their redemption value, says shopping expert Andrea Woroch, who appears on network shows such as Today, Dr. Oz and Good Morning America. “There’s also an entire secondary marketplace online. GiftCardGranny.com, for example, markets cards from [major] holiday retailers, with savings that average 10 percent,” she says.

Restaurant.com certificates are one of the most popular deals at NEA Click & Save. Keep an eye out for when the prices drop to $4 for a $25 certificate!

8. Ship gifts for free.

Many retailers will waive their shipping fee as a standard promotion—sometimes without minimum purchase amounts. For more variety, you can get free shipping from hundreds of online retailers via FreeShippingDay.com—but that’s only if you can wait until National Free Shipping Day, December 18.

If you aren’t already a member of Amazon Prime, opt for a complimentary trial of this popular service, which provides free two-day shipping for an annual fee of $99, in addition to books on the Kindle “Lending Library” and streaming TV shows, movies and music. Then, ship your holiday gifts to far-flung relatives and friends directly at no additional cost.

“Even better, Amazon lets you share shipping benefits with a family member,” Furman says. Sounds like a perfect present.

9. Save money by giving “free” gifts.

When you buy “stuff” for presents, sometimes those items can simply gather dust. But when you pair a thoughtful card with a handwritten note to give a precious asset—time—you’ll really make an impact.

“Offer a movie day with a child,” Gallegos says. “Or shovel snow, or host a party, or give your spouse a day off from chores and/or parenting and/or cooking duties.”

Another idea is to bequeath an important family heirloom. Write a heartfelt explanation to the recipient about its significance on high-quality stationery to make an impact that will last a lifetime.

“You’ll preserve family history but not spend a dime,” Hunt says. This kind of gift isn’t right for everyone, though. “Unless a person has expressed a particular love or desire for said heirloom, do not assume your gesture will be appreciated.”

10. Defray your entertaining costs.

You can spend a fortune on holiday decorations if you’re not careful. But why blow hundreds on inflatable Santas and enough twinkling lights to put the Griswolds to shame? Furman suggests that you turn to both nature and your loved ones for a more homespun look.

“Use branches from your backyard as wreathes or garlands,” she says. “String fresh cranberries for a Hallmark-style throwback look to simpler days. If you have kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews, display their holiday art projects. Take advantage of bows and ribbons that you can use every year.” Avoid decorations that you’d be inclined to toss after the big day.

If you’re hosting a large party, your holiday cheer can turn to tears if you’re holed up in the kitchen. Instead of stressing yourself out by trying to host a Martha Stewart-worthy dinner party, boost the fun factor by inviting loved ones for a potluck. “You share recipes—and cost—all at the same time,” Furman says.

Get tips on holiday decor from the NEA Member Benefits article “Spruce Up Your Home for the Holidays—for Less.”

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