I Tracked Everything I Spent Money On for the Holidays — And I Mean Everything
Ever wish you could ask others how they spend their money? We’re going there. In our “Cash Confessions” series, LearnVest breaks down the numbers to show how real people spend their paychecks, and whether their habits are financially on track — or off the rails.
Here, LearnVest Editor Jennifer Liu details how much she spent on the holidays — from the airfare and party threads down to the very last gift.
I love the holidays. Like not exactly “Buddy the Elf” level, but I’m definitely that girl queuing up Mariah Carey once November 1 hits. That said, I know this time of year is also when I spend the most money — and over a long stretch of time, too. While I save for holiday spending year-round, I’ve never tallied up just how much I shell out altogether. So this year, I tracked everything from the very first purchase that kicks it off each season (my ticket from New York City to Atlanta) all the way down to my office white elephant gift.
For the past three years, I’ve flown from New York City to spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family in Atlanta. We then make the 10-hour drive to my hometown of Columbia, Missouri, to spend New Year’s with mine, all before I fly back to the city in January. The good thing about this tradition is I’ve timed exactly which flights from which airports work best for my schedule (and budget). Around October, travel sites showed the flights I needed going for around $500, which seemed high — last year cost around $350.
I tweaked my route for evening departures and shaved off about $150. (I’ll deal with delays if it means saving that much.) Not only that, I’d finally accumulated enough Southwest points to cover a full leg of the journey. Granted, the ticket value was only $99, but hey, that’s $99 I get to keep in my pocket!
The good thing about working for a personal finance site is that you pick up a few handy tips — in this case, the genius idea of saving for holiday gifts throughout the year. This has been game-changing for me since my mom, boyfriend and three close friends have December or January birthdays — meaning double the gifting all at once. Every month I funnel away part of my paycheck into a “Gifts & Shopping” savings account and make sure to maintain about $600 by November.
This year, I made my list and checked it twice. (Translation: I stress-wrote an outline during a Cyber Monday panic.) Having $600 already set aside allowed me to splurge on the people in my life worry-free, including:
- Taiwanese skincare products and a mother-daughter lunch date: $102.41
- Cozy winter apparel, a book and some new tech for my boyfriend: $111.18
- A Glossier serum trio for one December-birthday friend: $55.70
- Delightfully sardonic enamel pins for a group of girlfriends (and me): $69.98
- A fun LED message board for my roommate: $21.76
- A spa package for my boyfriend’s parents: $36.50 for my half, thanks to a Groupon flash sale
- A dreamy lavender lotion from Lush for my work team’s white elephant exchange: $10.83
- Charitable donations to three organizations I support: $60
- Gifts for my older brother, friends, boyfriend’s family and more.
Clothes and Accessories
Usually I buy one dress at the beginning of the holiday season and re-purpose it throughout the month. This year, I committed to shopping my own closet — but then rewarded my efforts with a new pair of earrings. (I guess technically it was an everyday purchase that I just *happened* to time for my office holiday party, right?) In another moment of weakness (Cyber Monday strikes again), I jumped on a sale for a Rent the Runway dress for a New Year’s Eve party. How often does a girl get an excuse to wear a sparkly dress? I consider the price of renting worth not having said sparkly dress sitting in my closet the other 364 days of the year.
Before most vacations, I’ll set aside some extra cash from a travel fund (which I also contribute to monthly) to spend on top of my usual weekly spending. For my 14-day trip, I earmarked $400 to cover additional date nights, happy hours, brunch meet-ups, movie tickets, gas and so on.
Total Spent: $1,331.12
Since I technically started my holiday spending in October and accounted for everything from plane tickets to earrings, my expenses varied far and wide and added up to way more than I would’ve thought. That said, this is also when I spend the most time with my family and friends back home all year, so I’m happy to splurge a little more than usual.
I also feel pretty fortunate that my expenses aren’t higher — my trip doesn’t require hotel stays, I have a pretty small family to shop for, and my friends and I don’t expect extravagant gifts from each other. If anything, this experiment showed me just how much saving a little bit every month really helps me enjoy the season, ease stress and keep my budget in check — so I can look forward to the new year without feeling guilty or digging out of credit card debt.