We’re entering prime shopping season: According to NerdWallet’s 2019 Holiday Shopping Report, Americans plan to spend an average of $825 on gifts during the 2019 holidays, ranging from clothing to gift cards to toys, up 6% over last year. And for many of us, that means lingering credit card debt well after the holiday decorations are put away.
Indeed, 71% of shoppers will use a credit card to purchase gifts this year, the report found, charging an average of $660 on those cards. While that can be a smart way to take advantage of cash back, rewards and fraud protection, it can also mean paying more in interest if the balance isn’t paid off at the end of the month.
Those opting to use their credit cards say they expect it will take them 3.7 months to pay off their credit card balances — and 35% of those who used their cards last year say they are still paying off last year’s holiday debt.
That’s a heavy burden to carry into the new year. And it’s one that you can try to avoid, or at least minimize, with some careful planning. Here are some ways to give yourself a shot at one of the best New Year’s presents for you and your family: the gift of being free of holiday debt.
1. Use technology to track spending
Thanks to digital wallet apps, which 32% of holiday shoppers say they will use this season, it’s easier than ever to track your money, says Amy Zirkle, vice president of industry affairs for the Electronic Transactions Association, a payments technology group.
“Mobile payments allow you to better manage your funds because you’re engaged with the device. It’s more accessible versus pulling up your bank statement,” Zirkle says. You can see with a few taps whether you’re staying within your budget.
If you’re making your purchases the more traditional way, with a credit or debit card, you can still use your card issuer’s app to track spending — just be sure to download and log on for regular check-ins.
2. Earn cash back wherever possible, including by ‘stacking’ offers
Shoppers can not only use cash-back credit cards to earn a percentage back on their purchases, but they can also participate in other cash-back websites at the same time and stack the rewards on top of each other: RetailMeNot claims it offers members an average of $13 cash back per online order (you need to register first).
With Uber’s Visa Local Offers, you can link your credit card and automatically earn extra cash back at certain retailers. Rakuten also offers up to 40% cash back at over 2,500 stores when you shop through its app or website.
Just don’t let the cash-back offers entice you to spend more than you would otherwise.
3. Monitor prices to get the best deal
With all of the price fluctuations this time of year, it can be hard to know when to buy the items on your list. Tools like CamelCamelCamel.com, which tracks prices on Amazon AMZN, +1.20% , and the Honey browser extension, which checks for better prices for your online purchases, can help. If you’re shopping in stores, the ShopSavvy app makes it easy to scan bar codes so you can see whether there’s a better deal elsewhere.
You can also sign up for Paribus through your email account; the free service then scans your email receipts and monitors over 25 major retailers, looking for any price drops, which it then works to get refunded for you.
4. Take advantage of the ‘side perks’ that come with your credit card
Check out the shopping protections on the cards in your wallet so you can use that card to make big purchases. For instance, some cards come with price protection — which can give you a refund for the difference if the price falls after you make the purchase — or extended warranties.
Also see: 9 best gifts for Dad — under $50
If you have a consumer or small-business American Express AXP, +0.45% card in your wallet, you have free access to ShopRunner, which offers free two-day shipping and returns at over 100 retailers. That’s especially useful if you’re shopping at department stores or retailers that normally charge for shipping.
5. Pay off any debt as quickly as possible
If you do accumulate a balance on your card, make a plan to pay it off as soon as possible: If you make just the minimum payment on the card, a balance of $660 will take nearly four years to pay off and cost $239 in interest, according to NerdWallet’s calculations.
Being debt-free isn’t exactly something you can wrap up like a gift, but it can feel like an even bigger accomplishment than finding the perfect present for everyone on your list.
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Kimberly Palmer is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @kimberlypalmer.