The holidays come every year, like clockwork, but somehow so many of us still seem surprised by our credit card bills come January. We certainly live in a society of the moment, but if we truly want to take back control of our health and our future, we also need to take responsibility for our finances, and that means controlling our spending.

You may have heard the phrase, "the slavery of debt," and make no mistake, debt indeed makes you a slave, and the financiers of your overspending are your masters. I still remember vividly a scenario from my church quite a few years back, when they did a message on debt, and illustrated it with live-action scenes of people with shackles and nooses around their necks, being dragged around by those they were in debt to.

It certainly was a dramatic interpretation, but the point hit home with me hard - then still deeply in debt myself - and I never forgot it. Having experienced it myself for many years, I can truly say that being in debt feels like being in chains, and getting rid of that debt is like being set free. I will share my story of the long, arduous process of freeing myself at another time. But today I want to talk about what you can do, right now, to stop feeding your debt, and start building a freer future for you and your family - starting with your holiday shopping this season.
Rule #1: Shop Within Your Means

This may sound simplistic, but for many people this will be the hardest step of all. It is hard to rein in  your spending, when we are bombarded hundreds of times per day with messages about all the stuff we need - from food, to clothing, to shoes, cars, vacations, even expensive drugs to "ask your doctor about".
The list is endless, and from the smiling people shown on the pages, screens, billboards, signs, etc., it certainly appears that if we buy this, that, and the other, we will have endless happiness, fun, companionship, respect (or even envy), and sexual satisfaction.

But it doesn't stop there. Our kids are also bombarded by these messages, and peer pressure makes it especially hard for them to resist the latest trends and fads - thus they can make us adults feel guilty if we don't get them the latest thing they just HAVE to have to fit in. Having grown up below the poverty level myself, I know what this pressure feels like. And when I have kids, I am sure I will probably at times be sorely tempted to give them everything I didn't have.  But giving in is not the answer, and it won't help them as much as you (or they) think. If they absolutely must have something, make them earn it. Give them extra chores and pay them fairly for them, and teach them to save their earnings for what they really want. (But that is also a topic for another day.)

Basically, if you struggle with paying the bills, or putting food on the table, don't feel like you have to buy your kids the latest and greatest fashion, or that awesome new toy. Instead, try to find something you can do together as a family that they will enjoy. Maybe bring a thermos of hot chocolate and take everyone ice skating or sledding for the day as a Christmas present, and just get them little stocking stuffers, instead of big gifts.  You will save money and spend time having fun together as a family - and that is a gift which has no price.

If you don't have kids, or even if you do, but it is presents for the adults that are wrecking your budget, maybe you need to look at your priorities, and see whether "keeping up with the Joneses" is really that important in the grand scheme of things. It can feel like an obligation when someone gives you an expensive present, and you feel like you have to reciprocate, but don't let someone else's gift make you feel guilty. If they want to give you a nice gift, that's great, but it doesn't mean you should go into debt just to "make it even." Maybe they felt obligated themselves because you gave them an expensive gift last year. Who knows - maybe if you give them something a bit more modest this year, it will actually be a relief, and they may feel like they don't have to spend as much next year. You never know, but keeping an eye on your own budget is your responsibility - not theirs, so don't let the actions of others dictate your spending.

Rule #2: Have A Plan

Sometimes, in some circumstances, a bit of debt is unavoidable. Don't beat yourself up about it, and above all, don't think, "since I already went over my budget I might as well just splurge." This is rationalizing your slavery. Don't do it! Or maybe you like to put all your shopping on credit cards for miles or rewards points. This can be a slippery slope for some, but if you have the discipline to keep things under control, it can be perfectly reasonable for some - and it certainly makes holiday shopping more convenient.

Just make sure, either way, that you have a plan for handling any debt you may incur over the holidays. This means, have an actual plan,
not just saying, oh I will pay these off in January. Sit down, draw up a payment plan, figure out what payments you can afford, and how long it will take you to pay off the debt, and then put it into action. If that means putting money aside in an envelope at the end of every week, and then paying it towards your credit card at the end of the month, that's fine. If it means setting up an automatic bill payment out of your checking account every month so you won't forget, that works too. But whatever you do, put together an actual plan for how you will handle the debt, and get it paid off as quickly as possible. Then see Rule #3 for what to do next.

Rule #3: Think Ahead

This is similar to having a plan, as I just talked about, but we are thinking long-term here. After all, the holidays come around every year! If you find yourself having to buy gifts on credit cards this year and you aren't able to pay them off right away, this means you didn't follow Rule #1 - you didn't shop within your means. So what can you do, right now, this year, to keep from having the same thing happen next holiday season? We may be creatures of instant gratification, but we're also creatures with long-term memories, so let's use that to our advantage and learn from past mistakes, instead of making them over and over again.

How about, once you've finished your payment plan you set up to pay off the debt (see Rule #2), you keep setting aside that extra money you were spending on the credit card payments, only save that extra money into a separate account for the rest of the year.
You can call it your Holiday Savings Account, or whatever you want, but don't touch it for any reason until it's time to buy gifts again. Then use this money, and ONLY this money, for your holiday shopping next year. This will force you to set a budget for your gift-giving, and allocate the money in the account among the people you need to buy gifts for. Maybe you'll buy fewer gifts than the year before, and that's fine. But you'll be shopping within your means, and setting a great precedent for future holidays. Or maybe, with all that diligent saving, you'll actually have enough money saved to buy everyone all the gifts you want, with nary a penny of debt!
And then you will have broken the cycle, and shaken off your shackles - hopefully for good. (If you Bank On Yourself, like I do, you can also use these accounts as your holiday savings account, and pay yourself back throughout the year.)

If you follow these three rules diligently, you can free yourself from that vicious cycle of debt I see so many people stuck in - where they rack up thousands of dollars of credit card debt each holiday season, then take the entire year "feeding the beast" just to pay off the debts from the last holiday season, just in time to do it all over again the next year. In the meantime, your money is working for the banks and finance companies, not for you. And you are a slave, while your "master" beats you with higher and higher interest rates, fees, and penalties if your payment is even a few days late.

It's time to break free - throw off your chains - and take control of your finances. Just say no to the big expensive gifts, make a plan to tackle any debt you incur, and look ahead to the future with an eye on achieving financial balance. I promise it will be a brighter, freer, happier, and less-stressful future, even without all the stuff in the ads.

Happy (and responsible) holiday shopping!



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