Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Americans rack up $126 billion--yes, I said billion--in credit-card charges.
A few relatively painless changes in daily rituals now can assure financial relief by the 2003 holiday season. And you won't have huge credit-card bills with no money in your pocket or checkbook.
Curing budget bleeding
Here are some simple yet effective suggestions to help you save money:
Have breakfast at home, rather than stopping by the fast-food restaurant for a sausage-egg biscuit and a cup of coffee or large latte.
Try "brown-bagging" a sandwich and a piece of fruit a couple days a week.
Give up smoking, or at least cut back to half a pack a day, and buy the cigarettes by the carton rather than paying $3 or so a pack at the gas station.
Making these types of small changes gradually will save you hundreds and then thousands of dollars a year.
Get the family involved
Track all expenses for at least two weeks, writing down in a little notebook every penny spent.
Then take a hard look at the numbers. You'll see how much could be saved by taking lunch to work, car-pooling, skipping the new clothes every time you needed a mental "lift," or not buying the latest electronic gadget the kids just had to have.
More savings can come at the grocery. Make a list of what you really need, rather than what you want. And check to see what's on sale, or you'll overspend by not paying attention to how much you're buying and what you're paying.
And watch out for those tabloids, candy bars, and other "impulse" items stacked alongside the checkout lanes.
The experts suggest not shopping when hungry, and leave the kids at home when possible so that you aren't bombarded with cries for plush toys or other trinkets as you cruise the aisles.
Many of us overspend for those special nights out at a posh restaurant. But some dollars can be saved here, too, without looking "cheap" to your spouse or date. Just say no to those expensive appetizers, choose water or iced tea rather than drinks, and perhaps share a dessert.
Or duplicate the dining experience at home. A candlelight steak dinner at home with a good bottle of wine will cost about $40, while the tab at the restaurant may be over $100. Do this once a month and save $720 a year.
Budget for an emergency
Juliet Schor, author of The Overspent American, notes that 60 percent of American families couldn't maintain their lifestyle for more than a month if the primary income-producer lost his or her job. This is why many credit counselors urge the establishment of an emergency cash fund equal to four to six weeks of take-home pay.
Like losing weight, reducing debt takes time, knowledge, and willpower. Sometimes it also requires outside intervention. But the rewards of carrying less debt are as great for your well-being as the rewards of carrying less weight are for your health.
There's help available if you want to get out of debt and stay that way. Consider contacting:
Debt Relief Clearinghouse, (800) 779-4499 or www.debtreliefonline.com. This group will negotiate lower interest rates with creditors on unsecured debt, such as credit cards, student loans, and medical bills.
Consumer Credit Counseling Service, (800) 947-3752 or www.credit.org. This is a nonprofit agency that offers credit counseling, foreclosure and default counseling, and first-time homebuyers' counseling.
Myvesta.com, (800) 680-3328 or www.myvesta.com. A nonprofit organization that offers credit counseling, financial-recovery counseling, and online billing management.