We are now officially in danger of driving over everyone's own personal "fiscal cliff" as we approach our December holidays.
Although I just used the "h-word," let me note that I keep Christmas in my heart (and St. Patrick's Day in my desk drawer) all year long. Nonetheless, my financial advice goes out to all my readers, whether they celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Yule, Brumalia, the Feast of Ullr or National Safety Razor Day.
Yule have to budget
To avoid overshooting your own financial precipice, start with your budget. Total what you spent last holiday season on everything -- gifts, stamps for Christmas cards, festive toothpicks and creamed pickled herring. Review your checkbook and bank statements, or just take your best guess.
Next, eliminate everything you can. For example, I will make do with my old "Fireplace for Your Home" DVD, which features one compelling hour of a crackling fireplace log. Sure, I could spring for a Blu-Ray edition, but the old one is plenty adequate to drive my brother nuts.
Finally, check your savings. Hahaha! (I love that joke). Seriously, there are people who really save money in a special account all year, what with the holidays occurring on a mostly regular basis. And they don't whine about low bank rates because the only rate they care about is the 21.99 percent credit card interest rate they won't be paying.
If you don't have savings, cut your current spending, clip extra coupons, cash in gift cards or return those deposit beer bottles. If you must charge something you can't pay off when the bill comes, like a plane ticket because it's Uncle Bill's first Christmas home from Afghanistan, make a plan to pay it off in three months or less. (Also, "Then I win the Lotto!" is not a plan.)
Ticked-off at half price!
Now that you've got your budget and your list, go shop like a ninja. Check the newspapers; talk to friends; go online; read Mary Hunt's "Debt-Proof Your Christmas." There are hundreds of strategies. For example, if you see a buy-one-get-one free sale for Isotoner slipper socks, you and a friend can go in together. Now you can both tick a relative off your list for half the price.
You've got about four weeks to shop, and if you're disciplined and creative, you can find a way to have a perfectly nice, financially sane holiday well within your budget. Then in January, you know exactly how much to save during 2013, because just like they say every year, Safety Razor Day comes around.
(Brian J. O'Connor is an award-winning columnist for The Detroit News. Contact him at email@example.com.)