Student Finances and Holiday Gifts

Wendy Stewart

Most of us are familiar with the saying that college students are poor. We take scholarships, grants, and the dreaded student loan in order to pay for an education which will hopefully get us better employment and a higher salary. And for those reasons many of us are cash-strapped by the time winter holiday gift giving comes around for holidays like Christmas and Chanukah. The stress from gift giving to family, friends, and coworkers added to the stress of school will surely zap any joy from the holidays. To help navigate the stress minefield, here are a few do’s and dont's for surviving the holidays.

Do learn to say no

We want to please and help everyone. It’s the holidays so we want to donate money, give gifts to needy children, participate in office Secret Santa, give something to our children’s teachers, and on and on it goes. The problem is there are too many gifts and not enough money. You have to cut back on the number of gifts. If you don’t learn how to say “no” to some of these gift obligations, you’ll go mad trying to please everyone. I was a teacher and my most favorite gift was a card the class made for me. Figure out which obligations you can fulfill and which ones you’ll have to politely decline. Not only will this streamline your budget, but it will allow you to take some of the stress off the table.

Do not take out a refund anticipation loan

As December draws near, it may be tempting to take out a loan in anticipation of your income tax refund for 2016 (it is sometimes also called a rapid refund or words to that effect). Don’t do it! According to the non-profit Maryland Cash Campaign the average Earned Income Tax Credit filer loses an average of 22% of their refund to refund anticipation loans. That’s the equivalent of losing $400 on an $1800 refund due to fees. It’s just not worth it. File on time and keep all of your money. You’ll find another way to pay for gifts.

Do buy gifts early (you don’t have to wait until Black Friday)

It’s also tempting to wait until Black Friday and stalk the stores and use military strategy to find the best deals and knock out shopping all in one day – but you don’t have to do it that way. Thanksgiving night and Black Friday offer great deals for certain items, like electronics, but it’s not “do or die” for other potential gifts. A great site to check in anticipation of Black Friday, to see if it’s worth your time, is Brad’s Deals ( The site has guides for buying all sorts of products and usually has previews of Black Friday ads from most stores. Also remember the sales will continue through the holidays so pay attention to prices as they change from week to week to get the best deals.

Do make a budget

While this may sound like an obvious thing to do, it is a step many people forget. Impulse buying can severely affect your ability to give gifts but also handle all of your other responsibilities during the holiday season. Start by writing down the amount you spent last year. Each year, I make a budget of how much I plan to spend on each person and what I think I’m going to buy for them. I keep it in the notes section of my phone. Most of us keep our phones attached to us so this should be pretty easy to do. When you buy the gift, put the name of the gift and its actual cost with your original budget. This is a good way to see if you’re consistently going over your budget or if you have some slush money you can move somewhere else. Also, by keeping it on your phone, it’s easier to refer to the next year when you need a reminder of how much you spent. Why? Because that’s the number on which you’ll base the next year’s budget. Be sure to keep your receipts as well to help plan spending and in the case of returns.

Do balance all of your responsibilities

Whether you buy many gifts or a few or host a number of holiday themed parties, it’s important to remember to remain on the side of sanity during this crazy time. Besides family and other social obligations, you’ll also have professional and academic work vying for your time and energy. Make time to exercise, relax, and have a cup of tea or something else relaxing. Remove yourself from the madness in order to recharge. You’ll also benefit by planning everything during this time period. It doesn’t matter if you use the calendar on your phone or a physical planner, but make sure you can see all of your obligations at a glance. Do not rely on your memory. And while it may be jarring at first to see all you have to do, you have taken the first steps in controlling the demands on your time.

The winter holiday season is such a busy time in our lives, it doesn’t make sense to go through it with extra stress on your mind or your wallet. With a little bit of time set aside for planning and making use of tools you already have, you can tame the winter beast and come out on the other side, in the New Year, ready to take on the world.

*Articles reflect the views of the author and or those quoted and do not necessarily represent the views of CCBC or the CCBC Connection.

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