There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a unique 2020 holiday season, but there are consistent truths that remain when it comes to the holidays and personal finance. While the season is known for being merry and bright, sadly, financial challenges and stress are equally common for many this time of year.
According to our latest holiday spending survey, 60% of consumers feel stressed about their finances during the holiday season and half feel the extra expense of the holidays makes them hard to enjoy. More than half (52%) say COVID-19 has caused credit or financial barriers which are preventing them from doing their shopping the way they had planned. At the same time, 62% agree holiday shopping puts a strain on their finances.
In an effort to alleviate some of the financial stress some may be facing, I wanted to share three ways you can protect your financial health this holiday season and prepare for a financially healthy new year:
Start with a budget and a plan.
It’s easy to lose track of spending and take on unexpected debt during the holidays, which is why creating a budget is an important first step to protect your financial health. Experian research shows the average American plans to spend $775 on holiday gifts this season, but your holiday budget will depend on your unique financial situation. Outline how much you can realistically afford to spend and try to factor in expenses that are sometimes overlooked, which can be a challenge. In fact, our research found four out of five consumers often run into unexpected expenses they hadn’t planned for, including buying unexpected gifts (25%), gift wrapping supplies (25%) and mailing costs for sending gifts (21%).
Once you’ve outlined your budget, creating a plan for who you need to shop for and where you’re going to shop can be a helpful next step. Our survey showed 62% of consumers plan to shop more online this year due to COVID-19. If you’re planning to do more shopping from the comfort of your home this year too, tracking online sales and promotions can help you save money, and factoring in shipping costs can help keep your holiday budget on track.
Setting a budget and sticking to it, and having a shopping plan to avoid impulse buying will help keep you from falling victim to the pressure of overspending around the holidays.
Use credit as a financial tool.
Over half of shoppers say they will use credit cards and not cash when holiday shopping. This is an 8% increase from 2019. While using credit wisely is important all year, this is especially true around the holidays. The key is strategic use of credit – whether using a card that provides low interest, rewards points, or cash back – to improve the shopping experience and stretch your dollars.
Over a quarter of people say they plan to open a new credit card for the holiday season, which is a 5% increase year-over-year. The top reasons for wanting to open a new card include seeking a promotional no annual percentage rate (APR) credit card, wanting to get a retail store discount, and maximizing spending by getting a card with cashback rewards.
If you’re considering applying for a new credit card, improving your credit score can help you take advantage of the best credit offers this holiday season. Experian Boost allows you to get credit for paying your telecommunications, cell phone, utility bills, and streaming services payments on time. More than 4.9 million consumers have connected to the service since March of 2019 and about 61% of those who use Experian Boost see their scores improve.
When you’re ready to explore credit card options, Experian’s free Credit Match program can help you find personalized credit card offers based on your unique credit history.
Remember, credit is a financial tool, debt is a financial problem. Debt you can’t repay will certainly bring down one’s holiday spirit. If you don’t have a plan for paying off your credit card, using credit may not be a good idea.
Protect your identity.
The holidays may be the riskiest time of the year when it comes to identity theft and credit fraud. Identity thieves of all sorts are aware that consumers spend significantly more during the holiday season. While many of us are hunting or scrolling for the perfect gifts for friends and family, fraudsters are hard at work too. The number of consumers surveyed who have been identity theft victims during past holiday shopping seasons jumped to 24% from 12% in 2019. The holidays are always a ripe time for cybercriminals with the increased online traffic and this is especially true against the backdrop of COVID-19.
To protect yourself from identity theft while shopping online, avoid using public WiFi networks, create strong passwords for your online accounts, and only shop on secure websites you are familiar with. If you are shopping at a store, be sure to cover your credit card information when you enter it, or your personal information if you are applying at the point of sale. Shoulder surfers can use their phones to take a quick photo or video to steal your identity. Also avoid leaving your purse or wallet, or any documents in your car. Identity thieves stalk parking lots looking for opportunity that is just a broken window away.
Credit cards offer more protection for both online and in-person purchases than your debit card or cash, so consider using credit for your purchases. If fraud occurs, the money is not gone from your checking account and you can file a claim with your card issuer. Pay the balance in full right away to avoid interest charges.
Checking your credit report often can help you spot fraudulent activity. You can get a free credit report from all three bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com through April 2021. Identity theft monitoring is an easy way to monitor your financial accounts and credit report to identify possible fraud such as a credit card account opened in your name.
While the holidays may look a little different this year when it comes to protecting your financial health the same rules still apply.