Winter Blues? Tips to Get on Track in the New Year

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The winter blues are a real condition. Over 3 million people suffer from it each year. It’s classified as a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you are feeling fatigued, depression, or hopelessness, please seek professional help.

It’s January, the calendar has turned to the New Year, the weather is a bit colder, and I’m sure by now for some of us the bills from holiday spending have started rolling in. Does January typically feel like a letdown after the high of the Holidays? If so, you might be suffering from a classic holiday hangover or winter blues.

Now is not the time to run and hide from these bills, it’s time to put your big boy or girl pants on and face the spending you did late last year. There are no do over’s. You purchase the stuff, gave the gifts, drank, eat and were merry, all while in the middle of the holiday spirit.

Now January can be a tough month for many people who accumulated debt over the holidays. Typically, the New Year has you thinking of resolutions or goals for the next 12 months, but if faced with a pile of debt, you might feel overwhelmed. Now, with family and friends back to their daily routines, you might feel the winter blues setting in. So, it’s essential not to sit back and feel sorry for yourself, but rather begin to act and build a plan.

Assess Damage

The first step to combating the winter blues is to assess the damage you did. Make sure you have all the bills, credit cards, etc. accounted for and organized. Do you have any returns or exchanges to make? If so get them done, you don’t want to leave money on the table. Many merchants have set policies and time frames for returns/exchanges.

Did you purchase something and now see it on sale at a lower price? Some stores offer price adjustments, check to see if one is available for your item. My wife has been able to get a price adjustment on gifts/ items we purchased by merely showing our receipts. Once organized, you will have a grand total of the damage and can begin to build a plan to attack it.

Get Out of Debt

The good news is there are no significant holidays on the horizon. I realize Valentine’s Day is in February and St. Patrick’s Day in March. But there are plenty of ways to save money on these holidays. Have your special someone cook a nice meal at home for you. I buy my wife flowers all the time, no reason to pay triple on February 14th. For my Irish readers, St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t mean you need to spend a ton of cash Guinness at the pub. Buy some and drink it at home.

If holiday debt is your only debt, you need to come up with a plan to attack it. If you have other debts, you may consider adding this to it or leave it as a separate line item. Either way, you need to work this into your overall budget and figure the best way to conquer it. 

I’m a fan of the snowball method for paying off debt. It builds momentum, it celebrates the small wins, and I believe that’s important when trying to change behaviors.

If you need a refresher on building a get out of debt plan, here are some steps, we used to pay off our debt that I recommend:

Realize you need Help – Once you accept this, it is easy to move on to the next steps. Once we accepted, we needed to make a change I began to read everything and anything I could get my hands-on about personal finance, including many blogs and books. Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover” remains my favorites.

Build a Plan – Now that you’ve mentally and emotionally ready to kick the winter blues, you need to build a plan. The best way is in the form of a budget. I stared mine on an excel spreadsheet and still use it today. You can jot it down on paper, use an app or software like Personal Capital, but whichever way you choose, you need to get your total income, debt, and expenses down in some format.

A budget could take time to evolve, and you may want to track your spending for 30, 60, 90 days, saving all receipts to see where your money is going. You may be surprised at some of the dollar amounts of some categories. They could be much higher or lower than you originally estimated. This is why tracking all spending over a period of time is helpful.

Communicate and agree on the Plan – It’s so important to be on the same page with your spouse, partner, children, etc. when making changes like this. I was the one who initiated the plan for us, but before we started anything, I reviewed it with my wife. We compromised on some things but came away with an agreement on our money and budget that we were both in sync with.

Then, we looped in our three children, so they were aware of the changes and to help start to educate them about all things personal finance related. Communication is not just a one-time thing. It’s ongoing every day. Our family discusses money and budgets all the time. It’s the way we’ve stayed on track for over four-plus years during out $109,000 debt repayment.

Stop building New Debt –Once you know your overall numbers, you can begin to move forward on taking action. If you have debt, the next step is to stop accumulating any new debt, not tomorrow, not next week, but today! You don’t want to dig yourself further into a hole. You want to begin climbing out immediately. We did this by cutting up our credit cards and only using cash.

Wants versus Needs – Once you have a clear understanding of the budget and all expenses, it’s time to prioritize the expenses into two buckets, either a want or a need. Food and shelter are clearly needs, the new 60-inch television or pair of shoes is a want.

We were able to cut several wants out of our expenses, things like satellite radio, eating out, and entertainment to help reduce spending. These cuts become extra money now in your budget that can be used to pay down your debt.

Emergency Fund – Or the peace of mind fund. You need to have some cash saving for when life happens, or Murphy comes to visit you. We never had an e-fund before 2010, and when an appliance broke, or we got a flat tire, it was stressful. We didn’t have a plan for these things, and we had to scramble to find the money to pay for it or use a credit card. A $1000 saving will cover most events and reduces so much stress and avoid money fights you will have no idea of its impact until you have the e-fund in place.

Debt Snowball – The debt snowball is the method we chose to pay off our debt. The debt snowball is a debt reduction method where one owes on more than one account and pays off the accounts, starting with the smallest balances first while paying the minimum on larger debts.

After the smallest balance is paid off, the payment is snowballed to the next smallest debt.

This method helps build momentum. This worked best for us. Others use the Debt Avalanche method, where you pay off the balance with the highest interest rates first. Anyway, you choose to pay off your debt is fine, as long as you are not adding any new debt along the way and adding as much additional money as possible to your repayment is the key.

Save and Prepare to Avoid the Winter Blues Next Year

Once you have your budget and debt organized, it’s never too early to start planning for next year. While your shopping and spending are still fresh in your mind from last year, evaluate it. What caused the Holiday Hangover and the winter blues to set in? Did you buy for too many people, spend too much per gift, go overboard on food, etc.

Starting now gives you time to set the groundwork for next season. Maybe you need to talk with family members and set spending limits or only buy for specific members or pick names from a hat. You may be surprised when having these types of conversations. You may find others are struggling with holiday debt, too, and are looking for ways to cut costs. 

Once you have an outline for you can begin preparations.

You could start saving money now. The 52-week saving challenge is an excellent way to do it or start buying a gift a month. Another challenge that people are using this year is a no spend month. A month where you only buy necessities and nothing else.

Another great tip from my friend Gary @ Super Saving Tips is a trick he uses called the “austerity program.” It usually lasts more than a month, and Gary defines it as no extra spending besides the essentials.

There are many ways to get creative and ahead of the holiday season to prevent overspending, going into debt, and the winter blues. Use last year as an example, or previous years, learn from it, so you don’t repeat the Holiday Hangover cycle.

I hope that you have not overspent too much during the past holiday season, and you are not feeling the winter blue, but if you have these tips should give you a great start of recovering.

Do you suffer from the winter blues? Did you overspend during the holidays? If so, what ways are you planning on attacking your debt? What other tips would you offer to someone who struggles with debt?

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