You sure you want to go shopping this weekend? It's a madhouse out there.
I know, some of you just love this time of year. The crowds, the excitement, and the bargains are all compelling reasons to get yourself out of bed at 0-dark-thirty and get to your local retail supercenter in time to get a parking space and (maybe, hopefully) beat the worst of the crowds.
I used to be like that. When I lived in Boston, I loved spending a few hours wandering through the retail districts on the weekend after Thanksgiving, feeling the crowd's energy and enjoying the holiday music and decorations.
I'm over it, though. And plenty of others are over it, too -- my wife, for instance, won't go near a retail outlet until sometime next week at the earliest. How about you? Are you sick of the consumption-maddened crowds and the manufactured holiday "cheer"? Maybe Christmas isn't your holiday, or you just don't feel the need to fight crowds today to buy things you can get more easily in a week -- or online.
If you're like me, and you'd rather not go anywhere this weekend, here are some financial items to take off your to-do list.
- Set up your holiday budget. You can skip the January headaches when the bills arrive. Determine how much you can afford to spend before you go shopping, and build your shopping list from there. It's so easy to overspend this time of year, even if you don't wade into the Black Friday retail crowds. Online retailers are bracing for Cyber Monday, their own madhouse day, and etailers from Circuit City (NYSE: CC ) to Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) are offering free shipping and special discounts to draw traffic. And if you're inclined to impulse purchases, leave room in your budget for them.
- Use up your FSAs. No, not Foolish Shopping Admonitions -- your Flexible Savings Accounts. Many employers now offer their employees these tax-free opportunities to save money on health expenses or childcare. But there's a catch -- you can't carry the money over into another calendar year. If you have one FSA or two, it's time to think about using up remaining balances. I just got a new pair of glasses to use up the balance in our health-care FSA, but even if you don't need glasses, there are plenty of creative ways to spend that money usefully. Lots of online companies, including Walgreens (NYSE: WAG ) and Drugstore.com (Nasdaq: DSCM ) , have sections of their websites designed to help those who use FSA money. It's your money -- make sure you get something for it.
- Budget your bonus. Do you get an end-of-year bonus at work? I did for many years, and every time I had to fight the urge to treat it as found money. It's so easy to blow a bonus, but if that bonus is a sizeable part of your overall compensation, blowing it is probably a bad idea. Spend some time now deciding what you'll do with the money when you get it. And rather than blowing it, consider funding your IRAs, paying down some debt, or saving it for a home improvement project instead.
- Start thinking about taxes. I know, taxes are hardly in keeping with the holiday spirit. But there are things you can do between now and the end of the year to significantly alter your tax picture. Making charitable contributions, taking capital gains or losses, adjusting your income and the timing of payments, even prepaying your state and local taxes can all have an impact on the size of the refund you'll get -- or of the check you'll write -- next April.
These suggestions do lack the challenge of a pitched battle over the last Bumblebee Transformer amid the crowds down at Toys 'R' Us, but they'll make you happier in the long run. And you'll sleep easier in the not-so-long run, too, with no worries over whether you can afford this year's holiday extravaganza.