When it comes to holiday shopping, it’s all too easy to get swept away. The promotional emails, the catalogs, the impossibly-perfect-for-someone-you-know gift sets. And that’s just the shopping you’re doing for others… I am majorly guilty of the “one for you, one for me” technique, which isn’t great for my credit card bill. The sales are just soooo good (and the sweaters… they beckon me with their cashmeretasticness). Alas, all this holiday spending can lead to a serious January debt hangover. According to NerdWallet data, the average U.S. household was already in $16,140 of credit card debt by October 2015, before the holiday shopping season even cranked up. Who really wants to pile more onto that? This season, take a new stance and get yourself a holiday shopping budget. Awareness is half the battle when it comes to where you’re money is going, and the apps below make easy work of tracking it all. Here are some tips and tools to give you financial heavenly peace, now and after the spending is over.
If you’re looking for a good overall way to manage your cash flow, now and into 2016, Mint (iOS, Android, Web platforms) has everything in one place, from budgeting tools to bill paying and credit scores. Mint is the Granddaddy of money management apps; it first launched in 2006 and I made a video about it almost as long ago!). It lets you track your credit cards, cash, spending, income, and net worth, as you set goals and pay off debt. You can also set bill reminders so you won’t miss a credit card payment and rack up scary amounts of interest. Bonus: Each Sunday it will send you a weekly summary, showing you where you made the most purchases and on what days you spent the most money. Keeping an eye on your money should help you curb any wild spending habits (or at least get you back to the mall for a round of returns).
Some people swear by the old-school technique of dividing each paycheck into separate envelopes: rent money goes into this one, grocery money over here, new drone money… you get the idea. Mvelopes (iOS and Android app, Web) takes this simple concept into the digital realm, and it would be a great way to kickstart your holiday shopping budget. This award-winning app connects with your financial institution to see what actual funds are available, and translates this into the Mvelopes you’ve predetermined. Then it tracks your spending and gives you real-time reports on how you’re doing in each category. If you’ve scraped the bottom of an envelope, you’re out of luck (though you can transfer money from one spending category to another). Made a purchase with your plastic? The transaction amount is zapped out of the spending envelope and placed into a special envelope to pay off the credit card at the end of the month. Sneaky, but smart sneaky. The app can also help you save up for future purchases—like next year’s must-have toy.
Maybe you need to do some big-picture thinking about all this money stuff and need a little expert advice. LearnVest uses a combination of software and an actual human financial planner to come up with a plan for your hard-earned green. First, you set up a profile and discuss your goals and money habits with your planner. (The planners work via email or phone, not in person.) Your planner prepares a customized program for you, giving you step-by-step, bite-size to-dos that help you toward your goals. And if you’re in debt thanks to that new flat screen? LearnVest wants you to know that 57 percent of Americans spend all of, or most of, what they make, so you’re not alone.
If you’re a freelancer, rely on tips, or work on commission, the Level Money app (iOS, Android) will help you paint a more predictable money picture. It reviews your banking history, rather than looking at one paycheck and projecting from that number. Level Money keeps track of how much you have that’s spendable, showing you what’s remaining for your daily, weekly, and monthly budgets. It also lets you create “trackers” for any worrisome habits ($14 juices, I’m looking at you). The app also offers suggestions on what to do with any cash left over, such as making an extra mortgage or student loan payment.
‘Tis the season for credit card fraud, and your plastic is getting quite a workout. BillGuard (iOS, Android) notifies you about new purchases to ensure they’re on the up and up. Location-based fraud alerts let you know when your credit card or debit has been used at a store or ATM where you are not. And data breach alerts clue you in when a hacker has possibly accessed your card. BillGuard includes your TransUnion credit score; paid upgrades allow for comprehensive identity theft protection, with 3-bureau credit monitoring, black market surveillance, full service identity restoration, 24/7 live customer support and identity theft insurance.
Think you can keep things under control with a holiday shopping budget? Are you planning to spend more this holiday season than last? Tell me in the comments section below.