The presents have been opened. The decorations are looking tired, and the cookie tin is full of crumbs. 'Tis the time for post-holiday regrouping.
For many consumers, that means a good, hard look at how far off budget they went during the holidays. Often, it's not a pretty picture.
A survey from Coinstar, the provider of coin-sorting kiosks, found that 66 percent of all consumers go over budget during the holidays, by an average of $116. And about 78 percent of parents spend more than they intend.
"People go pretty far off track" during the holidays, said David Lyon, CEO of Main Street Financial.
Lyon said consumers seem to be throwing caution to the wind this year when it comes to spending. "Look at retail deposits, what's going into banks versus what is going out. It's a much lower percentage than what people really should be saving. This is something I've been seeing all year," he said.
That lack of caution is also showing up in consumer borrowing, Lyon said. "As the economy is improving, consumers have a greater sense of security around their jobs, and that tends to lend itself to people taking on debt."
Credit card debt levels certainly support that view. In a recent study, CardHub, a credit card comparison website, found that consumers were on track to take on roughly $48 billion in net new credit card debt in the fourth quarter, bringing new credit card debt accrued during 2014 to more than $60 billion. That's an increase of about 55 percent from 2013.
Jill Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for CardHub, said average household credit card debt is expected to hit nearly $7,200 by year end—just $1,200 shy of the average household credit card debt in 2008, when the financial crisis erupted.
"People are either not noticing how quickly and how much credit card debt is being racked up, or just kind of ignoring it," she said.
It would be one thing if all that spending brought us joy. But a study by BMO Harris Bank found that 32 percent of Americans regret how much they have spent over holiday seasons, and 11 percent expect to go into debt as a result of their spending.
Luckily, experts have a number of suggestions to help you get your finances back on track.
Making bad debt disappear first is typically at the top of the list. Your highest interest debt is probably on a credit card, so that is the debt to focus on first, Lyon said—particularly as the Federal Reserve is expected to raise the federal funds rate in 2015, which could mean higher credit card interest rates.
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Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, suggests setting a concrete goal for paying off debt.
"Many people piled new debt on top of old," she said. "Try to cull out the charges related to the holidays and commit to paying those off by the end of the first quarter of 2015. This will at least get you back to your preholiday spending level."
Changing payment methods
Changing payment methods may also help, said Alex Dousmanis-Curtis, head of U.S. retail banking at BMO Harris Bank. "If your credit card was your go-to during November and December, consider using only cash or a debit card in order to stop debt from continuing to accumulate."
CardHub's Gonzalez said the current low interest rates may be tempting some to stray from their budgets and make long deferred big purchases, but she cautions against that, particularly as rates may not remain so low. "Worry more about really paying off your debt as much as you can, and then making these big new purchases," she said.
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A year-end bonus can also help offset postholiday financial regrets, and four out of five employers intend to give out bonuses this year, a new survey found. But instead of applying it to current bills, consider banking it and rein in your other spending. This time next year, you'll be glad you did.
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It's also a good idea to start planning now for the 2015 holiday season, whether or not you spent more than you intended this year.
That may even mean heading back to the stores – once you are out from under the excesses of 2014. "Last-minute purchases are often made on impulse, and deals can be found throughout the year," Dousmanis-Curtis said. "If you pace it, you may feel less stressed, and so will your bank account."
Main Street Financial's Lyon made a similar suggestion. "If you know over the holiday season you are going to spend $5,000, plan for that," he said. The goal, he said, is to keep your debt level no higher than 25 and 33 percent of pretax income.
A budget may be your best tool for sticking to your money goals next holiday season, Lyon added. "When it comes down to buying your child a $50 gift or a $200 gift, your emotions will come down for the $200 plan," he said. "Having a budget helps you make smart decisions as opposed to emotional decisions."
Cunningham suggests totaling up what you spent in 2014 as a starting point. Once you have that figure, start saving toward the 2015 season. Divide the total by seven, and start putting that amount away each month from April through October.
Why April? "All extra monies in the first quarter should be dedicated to paying off this year's holiday debt," Cunningham added.
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Automating savings can make the process almost painless. It's clearly easier to contribute to a 401(k) when the money is automatically deducted from your paycheck, and you can make a similar arrangement to have money automatically moved from a checking account to a savings or investment account.
Follow these suggestions and you'll not only get your post-holiday finances in shape, but you'll be better prepared to keep them that way when the next holiday season rolls around.