I'm the first person to complain that CVS (NYSE: CVS ) already has its Christmas merchandise on display. It's too early for me to think about tinsel and trimmings and trappings, especially since the unseasonably warm fall has our family visiting the pumpkin patch in shorts. However, it's not too early to consider how your credit cards can help you sail through the holiday season with your finances relatively intact. Planning now will help you stay on top of your expenditures, give you better buying power, and lower your overall debt.
How can you gussy up your plastic to meet holiday demands? (No, not with those light-up reindeer antlers that made you the hit of the office party last year.) Think better interest rates. Think promotional offers. Think saving money.
Here's a step-by-step plan for getting your credit cards ready for December's heavy use:
1. Check your current balances and APR. Before you can figure out how to best approach your holiday spending, you'll need to get a handle on how much you currently owe your credit card company, and how much it's costing you. Odds are there's a lower rate out there somewhere, perhaps with a special 0% promotional rate on balance transfers. Find out how to win the balance transfer game and owe zero interest while chipping away at your balance. You'll also get a sense of how much you can afford to spend on this year's gifts.
2. Ask your credit card company for a better interest rate to keep you as a client. Your card company knows that it generally costs them more to secure a new customer than it does to keep an old customer happy. Don't be afraid to test out this theory by asking your issuer to sweeten the deal in order to keep your business. Lowering your rate, waiving an annual fee, raising your credit limit, or crediting a late fee are all fair game.
3. Shop for a better card, preferably one with a 0% interest promotion for six months or more. Six months interest free will allow you to not only make all of your holiday purchases, but budget to pay them off. Check out LowCards.com, a consumer resource that can help you find the best card for you.
4. Develop a buying strategy. Traveling this holiday season? Then make sure to use a credit card that offers rewards for travel, gas purchases, or hotel stays. Have a card like Upromise that pays down your student loans? Then buy all of your holiday gifts with it, so your retail frenzy will have some positive side effects. Already carrying high balances? Resolve to keep it simple this year with homemade gifts and thoughtful acts of kindness.
Need more tips on managing your credit? Try:
This article is adapted from theMotley Fool Green Light Money Answers archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!
Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool'sRule Your Retirement newsletter and co-advisor of Motley Fool Green Light. The Fool has a disclosure policy.