It's cold outside and the holidays are upon us. Shopping might seem like the best way to fight the winter blues, but getting on top of your finances in time for a fresh start in 2013 can be the smarter choice. Here are a dozen tips from top money experts on how to do just that:
1. Cash in. If you've built up credit card rewards points, now is a good time to take advantage of them, by converting them into a gift for yourself or friends and family, says Farnoosh Torabi, financial expert and television personality. "This year, I scored an Apple Macbook Air with my points—not a bad way to delay gratification," she says. She's also used points to buy family members gift cards and to travel.
2. Bundle up. Torabi also recommends turning down the heat to save on energy costs and instead bundling up with extra blankets. Plus, she adds, you might discover that you sleep better that way.
3. Make the ask. Certified financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole suggests getting ready to ask for a raise at performance-review time by checking out salary-comparison sites, such as Payscale.com and Salary.com, to see how your pay stacks up. She also urges people to take time to think back on their year's accomplishments, so they can explain them to supervisors. "If you come prepared to your review, your boss will likely be impressed, and hopefully amenable to increasing your salary," she says. She adds that it's also a good time to think about big work goals for 2013.
4. Manage gift expectations. This tip is especially important for parents: Children can learn early that Santa Claus doesn't bring everything they want. Cole says when she was growing up, her parents gave her and her siblings specific holiday budgets, which influenced the gifts they put on their wish lists. "Determine an amount you can realistically afford by taking a close look at your budget, as well as any other financial responsibilities, such as traveling to visit family. Telling your kids will help manage their expectations and also teach them a bit about budgeting," she says.
[See: 50 Smart Money Moves.]
5. Avoid stores altogether. Holiday shopping is easier to reign in when you're not confronted by tempting displays and sale signs. Helaine Olen, author of the forthcoming book Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, says when people go to stores for holiday sales, they often end up buying lots of (full-priced) extras on the side. To avoid that trap, she orders most of her gifts online or at the last minute, to get the best discounts. "This strategy is so successful that my December credit card bill is almost always my lowest credit card bill of the year," she says.
6. Write down everything. Olen also recommends making a note of every expenditure you make. "In my experience, this exercise cuts household expenditures by 5 to 10 percent," she says, because seeing expenditures in black and white can help you flag unnecessary splurges and inspire more thinking before your next purchase.
7. Take advantage of holiday offers. Credit card companies often make special offers during the holiday season, from 5 percent cash back to extra rewards points for shopping online, says Will Chen, editor of WiseBread.com. He warns against using credit cards rewards as an excuse to spend more money, and says shoppers should only take advantage of credit card benefits if they're prepared to pay back the balance at the end of the month.
8. Postpone Christmas. It might sound a bit Grinch-like, but Chen points out that shopping after Christmas is often much cheaper than shopping before Christmas. "You can take advantage of after-Christmas sales, read up on all the consumer reviews of the newly released gadgets, and pick up lots of refurbished items people return as unwanted gifts," he says. To persuade your family to go along with this plan, he suggests sending a nice card explaining that you want to avoid the holiday rush this year and look forward to picking out just the right present for them. The lower prices will allow you to either buy more presents, or keep more money in your own savings accounts.
9. Take care of yourself. Employees who have contributed money to flexible spending accounts typically have until the end of the year (or until mid-March of the following year) to spend that money. New glasses, acupuncture appointments, dental check-ups, and physical therapy are all eligible, along with dozens of other health-related costs. If you've been putting off a doctor's visit, now is the time to schedule it—and keep the receipts for any out-of-pocket costs for easy filing.
10. Make your own hot drinks. When the mercury plunges, it's natural to want to curl up with a mug of hot cider or steamed mocha. The folks at ImpulseSave.com, a site that fosters meeting savings goals, say there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you do your own heating and steaming at home. That way, you can save the difference for something bigger.
11. Get ready for tax changes. Pending the debate over how to resolve the so-called "fiscal cliff," taxes are expected to go up for most Americans next year. If you have the flexibility to bring any future earnings into 2012, that could reduce your tax burden next year. Adjusting retirement savings to funnel more income into pre-tax accounts can also help, along with keeping careful track of eligible deductions and tax credits.
12. Set 2013 money goals. While you might have your eye on some huge goals, such as buying a home or getting a new job, the best way to achieve those goals is by breaking them down into smaller steps, according to BJ Fogg, director of Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab. That might mean changing small, daily habits to start saving more, for example, or updating social media profiles to start more actively networking.
Do you have any tips to add to the list?