5 Hidden Costs of the Holiday Season

holiday season

It happens every year. You think you’ve budgeted accurately for the holidays, but somehow you end up spending more—sometimes considerably so—than you intended. You might immediately think of gifts as the biggest issue, but there are hidden costs for items or services you don’t necessarily think about right up front. Come January, the total for these expenses could be more than you bargained for.

Once you recognize these sneaky budget busters and factor them into your financial plans, you’re more likely greet the new year with your checking account and credit cards intact and avoid dipping into your savings to pay for the holiday season.

Quick tip: You may feel a little like Scrooge, but paying close attention to—and keeping track of—everything you spend this year for the holidays will give you a much more accurate picture when you go to plan for next year’s expenses.

1. Utility Bills

You love the look of decorative holiday lighting, and you might have even factored in the costs of any new lights needed this season. What you may not have considered is how much lighting up the night for weeks on end will add to your electric bill. To minimize the extra expense, you could:

  • Switch to LED lights. In Pennsylvania, the average for a month of operation is $17.36 for a traditional, incandescent display. That cost drops steeply to $5.79 for LED powered holiday cheer. LED lights use at least 75% less energy and last far longer than traditional bulbs.
  • Use a timer. Automating your lights to turn on when it’s dark and off at bedtime will also help shave some expense from your energy bill.
  • Scale back your décor. You don’t have to have a yard full of inflatables or thousands of bulbs lighting up your home. You can opt for a smaller display and still experience the joy and magic by visiting holiday displays around the area.

And if you entertain during the holidays, those extra meals and dishes, loads of laundry, and party lights can tick up energy costs by requiring more use of appliances, hot water, gas, and electricity.

2. Gas and Travel

Hopefully you’ve already started planning for and even booking visits that involve flights and hotels. According to CNBC, travelers are seeing slightly lower prices this year over last, but as the holidays get closer, demand and prices will rise. The earlier you can book your trip, the easier it is to control costs and not end up spending too much.

Even if your holiday plans don’t include airports and vacation rentals, other transportation expenses can still push your budget over the limit. Gas prices in southeastern Pennsylvania are hovering near the $4 mark, so it’s important to account for the additional fuel. A longer road trip to celebrate with loved ones may already be in your calculations, but don’t forget to account for the additional shopping and social trips you’re making this season.

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3. Food

Food plays a starring role in almost every holiday celebration. If you entertain during the season, you likely have a menu and accompanying budget for parties and dinners carefully planned. But if you’re hosting guests for overnight stays, you’ll also need to factor in additional meals, drinks, and snacks for your visitors. Experts note that prices are up about 2.4% this year over last year, but that's on top of the 11.4% from the year before that, so expect to pay more at the register when stocking the refrigerator and pantry.

Shopping at warehouse clubs like Costco and BJ’s can help, as can discount retailers like Walmart and Aldi. Sticking to your list and using circulars to compare prices can help you take advantage of competitive pricing and stretch your food dollars. Planning ahead means you know what you need to purchase and you can buy it when it goes on sale. This is especially important if you’re buying in larger quantities for parties and homemade holiday foods, including baking. (Good news – eggs prices are down 28.8% over last year!)

And in this busy time of year when your energy is going into preparing for and celebrating festivities, it can be tempting to lean on restaurants and take out for your every day meals. Restaurants on average charge about a 300% markup on items they serve, meaning a meal that costs $5 to make at home could cost $15 or more in a restaurant. Eating out, or getting takeout, more often than you normally would can significantly increase your food costs.

Quick Tip: If you’re already preparing food for entertaining and holiday meals, purchase extra ingredients and stash a few of those dishes in the freezer. They’ll come in handy when you’re too busy or tired to cook, and you can avoid the temptation of picking up the phone to order a pizza.

4. Self-Giving

If you’re the primary holiday shopper in your household, you’ve probably set a budget for gift-giving. But how many times, while in a store or shopping online, have you spotted something just perfect for you, on sale, and snapped it up? Whether it’s a necessary item, or a treat for yourself, you most likely haven’t factored that into your spending. As you’re making your list, think about including yourself to accommodate these impulse purchases without blowing your budget.

Speaking of which, think carefully about the gifts you buy for others as well. There’s great joy in giving the perfect gift, but the pressure from commercials and store displays can convince us to spend more than initially planned. Regardless of whether you’re buying something for yourself or a loved one, decide on your budget and stick to it. Remember it’s not truly a bargain if you’re not prepared to pay it off and end up tacking high interest on your purchases.

5. Unplanned Gifts

You may have your list (and checked it twice), but it’s not unusual to receive an unexpected gift from a co-worker, neighbor, or someone else who wasn’t on your gift list, and then what do you do? You may feel pressured to reciprocate and end up purchasing added gifts at the last minute, usually at a premium. While a few extra dollars here and there doesn’t seem like a big deal, the costs can accumulate throughout the season.

You can avoid the anxiety and last-minute spending by planning ahead:

  • Purchase items such as gloves, hats, and scarves, at the January sales and you’ll have these classic presents on hand.
  • Stock up your gift closet. Things like hand soap, candles, picture frames, and blank journals suit a variety of occasions and recipients. Shopping throughout the year allows you to take advantage of sales and avoid the last minute scramble to find something. Don’t forget to include gift wrap and gift bags, tags, tape, and other accessories (also available on clearance!).
  • Keep a small stash of gift cards in varying denominations on hand. A gift card is truly a one-size-fits-all, and a welcome treat for the recipient. National retailers like Target and Starbucks are always appropriate, but don’t forget about gift cards for locally owned small businesses too!
  • Remember gifts don’t need to be extravagant or expensive. A cheerfully wrapped package of homemade treats or other thoughtful tokens is a nice way to say thank you. And most of the time, just the sincere expression of appreciation is “thank you” enough for the gift giver.
  • Sidestep the last minute rush and higher fees for expedited or urgent shipping by ordering your gifts well ahead of time.

Now that you have a clearer picture of seasonal expenses, be better prepared for next year.