University of Illinois Extension

Control Your Holiday Credit Card Debt

Susan Taylor, Consumer and Family Economics Educator

The holidays should be a joyful time for you and your family. But for many families raising grandchildren, it’s tough to find the extra cash for holiday expenses. Using your credit cards may solve the immediate problem, but the debt can create other problems.

Most families don’t plan to run up high balances on their credit cards during the holidays—it just happens. Nearly one-third of adults say they spent more than they planned on holiday gifts. Most spent $100 to $500 more than they planned. It is hard to pay off an extra $500 on credit cards after the holidays.

Ways to Control Spending

  • Start by making a written plan for holiday spending. Think about how much you can afford to spend on gifts, decorations, holiday meals, and travel.
  • Set a spending limit for gifts for each person. Include limits on other items in your spending plan. Start looking for bargains early. If it’s been a tough year for you, think about cutting back on what you usually spend. Talk with friends and family about not exchanging gifts, drawing names so you give fewer gifts, or setting dollar limits on gifts.
  • Decide if you are going to use a credit card for holiday spending. If you use only cash, leave your credit cards at home so that you won’t be tempted. If you write checks, be sure to record each in your register and figure the balance before writing another check. Stay within your limit!
  • If you need or want to use a credit card, pick just one to use for your holiday spending. It’s easier to control your spending with one card. Write your spending limit on an envelope and put it in your wallet. When you use your credit card, write the amount on the envelope and subtract it from your limit. Put the receipt in the envelope. When you’ve reached your limit, stop using your credit card!
  • Try to separate shopping trips from spending trips. Make one trip to compare prices and value but don’t take along your checkbook or credit cards. When you’ve decided what you can afford to buy, go back to make the purchases.

Ways to Cut Holiday Costs

Make gifts by hand or give gift certificates promising your time or talents. Have friends or family over for dessert rather than for a meal. Make your own holiday decorations. The gift that each of us remembers as most special is usually one that involved someone’s time and thought, not large amounts of money.

Credit Card Offers

During the holidays, your credit card company may offer to let you skip a payment or two. Or, it may invite you to pay back only the minimum or even reduce your minimum payment. Don’t take these offers—you’ll end up paying more in the long run.

Stick to Your Plan

The best gifts are those that do not burden you with debt into the next year. For more information on using credit wisely, check out our Credit Card Smarts website at