The best and worst ways to budget for the holidays

Some of Canada’s top personal finance experts share their best holiday budget tips, but also their biggest blunders.

Top personal finance experts share their strategies for surviving the holidays

Personal finance blogger Kerry Taylor’s daughter Chloe reads a second-hand book. (Submitted by Kerry Taylor)

Presents. Parties. Travel.

The holidays can drain our energy, and our bank accounts — even if we try our best to prevent it.

We checked in with some of Canada's top personal finance experts for their best budget tips, but also their biggest blunders, because even the smartest money-handlers know holiday pressure can lead to poor decisions.

Make the 2nd-hand economy your 1st economy

Kerry Taylor, known for her blog Squawkfox and her endless supply of creative money-saving tips, says her top strategy to keep spending in check is to scour the second-hand economy for gifts.

"With Kijiji and Facebook buy and sell groups there are endless listings of brand-new toys, books and kids' gear waiting to be bought for up to 95 per cent off retail," says Taylor.

"The bonus is most of these items are brand-new, with tags still attached, so you're saving big bucks on the stuff selling in stores today."

She bought all her daughter's gifts this year for just $22.

Don't book the red-eye on Christmas Eve

Taylor loves to save money, but it doesn't always pay off as well as she hopes.
Kerry Taylor, on a plane with her daughter Chloe, recommends not taking the red-eye flight on Christmas Eve. (Submitted by Kerry Taylor)

"I booked the red-eye on Christmas Eve to save a few bucks," says Taylor.

"The plan would have gone off without a hitch except a storm blew through Toronto that year and nearly grounded my flight. The worst part was the carrier overbooked the flight, so passengers were being bumped the night before Christmas."

She made it home in time to unwrap presents, but the stress and delay weren't worth it, she says.

The lesson learned? "If being home for the holidays is a big deal for you and your family, book your flight early and plan to travel on any night but Christmas Eve."

Figure out what the holidays are for

Bruce Sellery, author of The Moolala Guide to Rockin' Your RRSP and Moolala: Why smart people do dumb things with their money (and what you can do about it), has an answer for any financial question.

But his advice for the holiday comes in the form of a question.

"What's the purpose of the holidays?" asks Sellery.

Bruce Sellery and his daughter Abby Sellery spend some family time together during the holidays at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto. (Submitted by Bruce Sellery)

"It could be family time, religious connection, celebrating traditions, eating, eating, eating, relaxation, giving.… Every family has a different answer and it is often a combination of these things."

Whatever it is, figure it out, Sellery says.

Then, put your time and money toward that focused purpose. If holidays for your family are about spending time with each other, skip presents and do something together. 

"That might seem simple," says Sellery, "but so many families behave in a way that is inconsistent with the purpose, leading to needless stress and spending."

Be OK with returning gifts

If you decide to give gifts, Sellery suggests it's financially smart to be open to returning or exchanging them.

"One year Dennis and I both got it wrong. I bought him a camera and he bought me a Fitbit. Neither of us were thrilled with the gifts, but we didn't say anything," says Sellery. 

They both ended up hanging on to the pricey presents, when they could have enjoyed something else much more.

Sellery's selling a used Fitbit, in case anyone is interested in using Taylor's second-hand economy tip.

Save for holiday spending one week at a time

Preet Banerjee, a personal finance guru who regularly shares his expertise on CBC's Bottom Line panel on The National, has a strategy for shoppers to break free from their debt cycle.

Preet Banerjee gets festive for his holiday Twitter photo. (Submitted by Preet Banerjee)

"Every year, it's the same story," Banerjee says. 

"People spend more than they planned, they pile it on their credit cards, and then we talk about the 'credit card hangover' in January."

Instead, he says, tally up the total amount you spend on the holidays this year and divide that number by 48.

"Your answer is how much you should be putting away every week in an automated transfer to a new, dedicated savings account. Set it and forget it," Banerjee says.

Voila. Next year's budget.

Jacqueline Hansen looks at Accenture survey results showing how Canadians are spending on their holiday shopping. 0:56

Avoid last-minute shopping

​Banerjee does his best to avoid last-minute shopping. 

Not because of the stress, or the crowds, but because he doesn't want any of his questionable panic purchases to show up on Twitter.

"I live my life just trying to ensure I don't end up on Peter Mansbridge's live-tweeting of last minute Christmas shoppers on Christmas Eve," Banerjee says.

Don't pack your presents

And finally, a note to annual holiday travellers who fly home every holiday season with a suitcase full of little gifts for the family.

Watch out for overweight luggage fees. As well, most airlines don't want wrapped presents in your luggage.

A suitcase packed entirely with presents could present a problem at the airport. (Jacqueline Hansen)

The solution: order online and get the items shipped to where you're travelling. Just make sure you have someone trustworthy to receive the packages, who won't "accidentally" open them.

Your loved ones will also appreciate that you've been able to pack more than one change of clothes.

About the Author

Jacqueline Hansen

Senior Business Reporter

Jacqueline Hansen is a senior business reporter for CBC News. Based in Toronto, she's been covering business and other news beats since 2010.