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Daughter smiles as she sits on her mom’s lap and unwraps a Christmas present.

How to Handle Holiday Debt

12.14.2023 / Archelle Sorrell - Financial Wellness Manager
Financial Well-being

The holidays promise joy, togetherness, and merriment with family and friends. Yet, for a lot of us, the post-holiday scene unfolds quite differently—a cascade of bills and a looming sense of debt that can cast a shadow well into the new year. If the aftermath of holiday spending has left you feeling more Scrooge than Santa, weighed down by credit card balances from those festive gifts and celebrations, take comfort in the fact that you're not navigating this financial maze alone. Let's unwrap practical strategies together to turn the tide and embrace a merrier and financially brighter new year.

Understanding the Impact of Holiday Debt

As revealed by a recent NerdWallet survey, close to 222 million Americans (85%) plan to purchase gifts this holiday season, contributing to over $184 billion in holiday gift spending. On average, individuals are expected to spend around $831 on gifts. With such high spending levels, it's no surprise that approximately 52% of Americans incurred credit card debt during the previous holiday season.

Shockingly, nearly a third (31%) of those individuals have yet to settle these balances, emphasizing the long-lasting financial impact of holiday spending. The consequences of accumulating holiday debt extend beyond the immediate financial burden. They can also lead to increased stress and anxiety, strain on relationships, and additional interest and fees that further exacerbate the overall debt situation.

Furthermore, accumulating holiday debt can significantly impact credit scores. Unpaid credit card balances, especially from holiday spending, may result in higher credit utilization rates and lower credit scores. This can have a long-term effect on your financial well-being, making it more challenging to secure loans or obtain favorable interest rates in the future.

Planning Ahead

To effectively handle holiday debt, it's crucial to plan ahead and take proactive steps towards managing your finances. Here are some key strategies to consider:

  1. Assess Your Current Financial Standing:
    Begin by evaluating your current financial situation. Take into account your income, expenses, and existing debts. Understanding where you stand financially will allow you to make informed decisions and set realistic goals for managing holiday debt.
  2. Identify and Prioritize High-Interest Debts:
    Take a close look at your debts, particularly those with high-interest rates. These debts can quickly accumulate interest over time, exacerbating your financial burden. Prioritize paying off these high-interest debts first to minimize interest costs and free up funds for other financial obligations.
  3. Set a Realistic Holiday Budget:
    Creating a well-defined holiday budget is essential in avoiding excessive spending and accumulating unnecessary debt. Here’s how:
    • Determine an overall budget that aligns with your financial capabilities. Consider your income, existing debts, and other financial obligations.
    • Break down the budget into specific categories, such as gifts, decorations, and activities. This breakdown will help you allocate funds more effectively.
    • Allocate funds strategically based on the importance of each category to you and your family and differentiate between necessary expenses, such as bills and groceries, and discretionary expenses.
    • Prioritize essential expenses before allocating funds to non-essentials. Ensure that bills, groceries, and other necessary obligations are covered first.


By planning ahead and adhering to a realistic budget, you can avoid excessive spending and reduce the accumulation of holiday debt.

A woman sits at her kitchen table and goes through her financial paperwork.

Smart Spending Tips

When it comes to managing holiday debt, adopting smart spending habits can make a significant difference. Consider the following tips to make the most of your budget:

  1. Research and Compare Prices:
    Before making a purchase, take the time to research and compare prices. Utilize online comparison tools and websites to find the best deals across different retailers. Additionally, consider visiting various stores in person to compare prices and take advantage of any in-store promotions, discounts, or price-matching.
  2. Take Advantage of Discounts, Promotions, and Sales:
    Keep an eye out for discounts, promotions, and sales to stretch your holiday budget. Sign up for newsletters or alerts from retailers to stay informed about upcoming sales and exclusive promotions. Joining loyalty programs can also provide access to additional discounts and rewards.
  3. Consider Alternative Gift Options:
    Explore alternative gift options that are both meaningful and budget-friendly. DIY gifts offer a personal touch while being cost-effective. Consider creating homemade crafts, baked goods, or personalized items for your loved ones. Another option is to give experiences rather than material gifts. Tickets to events, spa days, or cooking classes can create lasting memories while often being more affordable than traditional presents.
  4. Use the Payment Method that Suits Your Needs
    If you’re carrying a credit card balance, consider using cash or a debit card for holiday purchases to avoid accumulating more credit card debt. With cash, you have a tangible reminder of your spending limit, encouraging more mindful purchases. Additionally, using a debit card for transactions can help you avoid interest charges and keep your spending within your means.

    Having said this, credit cards can also be a great tool for holiday shopping when utilized wisely. They provide a more secure means of payment than using your debit card, and you can typically earn cash back and rewards with each purchase. Plus, if you pay off your balance in full each month, you avoid interest charges and can improve your credit score. We’ll cover more tips on how to responsibly use credit cards during the holiday season in the next section.

    At the end of the day, you should use the payment method that fits your unique needs best. No matter which avenue you take, setting a budget and sticking to it will help you minimize holiday debt and make the most of your financial resources at hand.

Utilizing Credit Wisely

There are a few important factors to consider helping you manage credit wisely during the holiday season. First and foremost, understanding the terms and interest rates associated with your credit cards is essential. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions, including any fees and repayment terms. This knowledge will empower you to make informed decisions and avoid any unexpected financial surprises.

Using credit responsibly for holiday purchases is crucial to prevent excessive debt. It's advisable to limit credit card usage to essential holiday expenses and refrain from using credit for non-essential or impulse buys. Creating a budget and sticking to it will help you stay within your means and avoid unnecessary financial strain. Responsible use of credit involves being mindful of your spending and ensuring that you can comfortably repay any debts without long-term consequences.

Above all else, avoid maxing out your credit cards if possible. It's tempting to reach the maximum credit limit during the holiday season, but doing so can negatively impact your credit score and increase the risk of financial difficulties. Experts recommend keeping your credit utilization below the recommended threshold, typically around 30%, to maintain a healthy credit profile and reduce the likelihood of financial strain.

Post-Holiday Financial Recovery

After the holiday season, take a close and honest look at your overall financial situation. Assess your income, expenses, and any debts incurred during this time. This evaluation will give you a clear understanding of where you stand financially and will help you develop a detailed repayment plan for any debts accrued. Set specific monthly or weekly goals and allocate funds from your budget to systematically reduce and eliminate the debt. If managing multiple debts becomes challenging, consider exploring debt consolidation options to simplify the repayment process and potentially secure a lower interest rate.

Recovering from post-holiday debt requires dedication and a proactive approach. Be patient with yourself and stick to your repayment plan. Adjust your spending habits if necessary and look for ways to increase your income. Seeking guidance from a financial advisor or credit counselor can also provide valuable insights and strategies for effective debt management. By taking these steps, you can achieve post-holiday financial recovery and work towards a healthier financial future.

Different Ways to Pay Down Debt

Here are five useful methods to pay down debt and take charge of your financial situation:

  1. Negotiate with creditors: Contact your creditors to discuss lower monthly payment options or modified repayment plans.
  2. Consolidate/refinance existing debt: Consider securing a new loan with better terms to pay off existing debts at a lower interest rate and simplify repayment.
  3. Utilize available resources: Look into government assistance programs, grants, or online loan consolidation services for additional support in managing and reducing debt.
  4. Side hustle: Take on a part-time job or side gig to supplement income and allocate the extra earnings towards debt repayment.
  5. Balance transfer: Transfer high-interest balances to a credit card with a lower interest rate to save on interest costs and expedite debt reduction.

Implementing these strategies and staying committed to your goal can pave the way towards a debt-free future and help you achieve greater financial stability.

Seeking Financial Guidance

At Community First Credit Union, we understand the importance of seeking financial guidance to achieve a healthier and more stable financial future. That's why we offer personalized advice and solutions that are tailored to your unique needs. Our moveUP financial wellness program is designed to empower you with the knowledge and skills to make informed financial decisions. With a range of self-service modules, programs, and in-branch resources, moveUP provides you with the tools to improve your financial skills at your own pace. We believe that financial planning should extend beyond just the holiday season, and we encourage year-round planning to ensure your long-term financial well-being.

The Bottom Line

As you navigate the holiday season, it's essential to plan and budget carefully to avoid unnecessary debt. Prioritizing essential expenses and exploring alternative, cost-effective gift options can also help maintain your financial stability. Understanding credit terms and using cards judiciously is crucial, along with developing a clear plan for timely credit card repayments. For personalized advice and comprehensive financial education, turn to Community First. Embrace year-round financial planning with our ongoing assistance for a brighter financial future. Give us a call today at 904.354.8537.

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