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How to get through January

By Peter Andrew

How to get through January

When you recite the months, do you begin, "Penury, February, March, April ...?" If so you're not alone.

Being broke after the holidays is a common experience for millions of us. We're dragging ourselves out of bed, in the dark, and we've nothing to look forward to for months. Daylight is scarce and unavailable outside the hours when we're cooped up at work. Our checking accounts are drained, and December's credit card bills have arrived. What's not to hate?

Visualize better finances next year

But next January doesn't have to be like that. Assuming you don't find your finances impossible to cope with every month (and, if you do, that's a different conversation), you should be able to get through the beginning of future years in much better shape.

Really, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa don't creep up on any of us. Those of us who, through faith or tradition, observe them know precisely when they're coming -- months and years ahead.

Spread holiday spending throughout the year

The great thing about these highly predictable events is that even those of us who are generally useless at planning ahead (and regular readers know I'm one of them) can do better than we usually do. We can choose moments when we have a few spare bucks to buy bargains.

Providing it's thoughtfully selected, a Christmas present bought at a county fair in June or a yard sale in March, and then stored in the back of a closet, is no less appreciated than one purchased from Sears in December. Similarly, when stored properly, quality wine, beer and liquor picked up inexpensively during a mid-year sale from your local store or market should taste as good during the holidays as the expensive stuff bought after Thanksgiving.

The point is, we can spread the cost of the 2016 holidays throughout this year by buying in advance -- not by using our plastic to spread the cost over 2017.

Nourish an online savings account

Right now, I'm having a fairly blue January. It wasn't the holidays that made me feel this broke. It was a couple of grand in veterinary surgeons' bills either side of Thanksgiving followed by another $1,000 in unexpected utility bills. And those sorts of shocks can leave most of us reeling. So I'm not going to judge you if you are wondering how to get through the next few weeks. Here are some thoughts:

  • Open an online savings account to cover 2016's holiday expenses. If you're like me, one with your existing bank makes it too easy to raid your balance on impulse, so keep it separate. You may not be able to deposit anything much now, but even $50 or $100 a month for the rest of the year could see you start 2017 feeling a whole lot better.
  • If your credit's still good, go to a reputable credit card comparison-shopping site, such as CardRatings.com. A zero interest balance transfer deal could leave you with extra cash for your new savings account. Just be sure to pay down your balance in full before the introductory offer expires.
  • If the last thing you need is another credit card, an alternative is a personal loan. Of course, these cost, but they usually come with lower interest rates than normal credit cards

Saving beyond the holidays

Pew Charitable Trusts published a depressing report in November detailing just how vulnerable many of us are to financial shocks. A whopping one in three American families have absolutely no savings at all. And that's not wholly a function of poverty: Ten percent of households with incomes in excess of $100,000 a year have none.

This is serious, because a January, 2015, study from the same organization found that, over any given 24 months, one in four families experience a rise or fall in income of 25 percent. In other words, as more of us live in the "gig" economy (see "Managing money when self-employed") or with short-term flexible contracts, we're experiencing increasingly unpredictable income streams. At the same time, more than half of us (55 percent) lack the liquid resources to cover the loss of even a single paycheck.

The fact is, as employment and income patterns change, we're struggling to keep pace with the new financial reality. If you're not saving anything now, you really need to ask yourself whether you can't do better. Otherwise post-holiday blues might be the least of your problems.

Peter Andrew has over 25 years of experience writing about marketing, advertising and management. He regularly covers consumer credit card topics for IndexCreditCards.com and other personal finance publications including Fox Business, TheStreet and MSN Money. He also writes frequently about mortgages and auto loans. Peter has spent extended periods living overseas, in the UK, France and Africa. He lives with his partner of 20+ years, and wastes too much of his time on cryptic crosswords.

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