stay out of holiday debtThe last few months of every year bring about good cheer, gifting and gorging on sumptuous spreads surrounded by loved ones. Unfortunately, all of this can lead people to spend far more than their budget allows, and when the last of the turkey leftovers has been eaten and the final piece of New Year’s Eve confetti has been swept into the dustbin, reality comes knocking in the form of a credit card or bank statement. It’s then that you realize you’ve landed on the other side of the festive season owing more money than you intended. Dealing with holiday debt is not an ideal way to start a new year, but that doesn’t have to be your reality. In this post, we’ll guide you on the steps you can take to keep on top of your personal finances this year — and for many years to come.

The reality of holiday debt in America

It’s no secret that Americans have a debt problem, and that extends to holiday spending. In fact, the average American spends nearly $1,000 or more on holiday purchases every year, and in November 2017, the country’s credit card debt rose at the second-fastest rate in a decade — climbing $11.2 billion during the month. Whether you’re already carrying debt as we head into the winter months, or you just know that you’re guilty of getting a little overzealous once those twinkling lights go up, it’s important to add a dash of cold, hard reality to your fanciful holiday season when it comes to your finances. Taking some time to strategize will help you stay out of holiday debt.

How can you avoid taking on holiday debt?

The simple answer would be not to spend money, but as we all know, that can be a fool’s errand during the holidays. No matter who you are or what your lifestyle is, chances are there are going to be things you want or need to spend money on during the coming months. So what can you do?

Make a budget and stick to it as closely as possible

Chances are, this isn’t your first sleigh ride through the holiday wonderland. That means you have at least a general idea of what kinds of expenses you tend to incur around this time of year — and if you aren’t sure, you can take a look back at last year’s credit card and bank statements to see how you spent your money. Based on what you expect you’ll want to purchase, from gifts to ingredients for all those pies you bring to gatherings, you can create a budget for the holiday season. Be sure to account for your typical monthly expenses, like rent and car payments. And think of ways to save, be it using apps or browser extensions that monitor prices across different websites to help you find the best deals, careful coupon clipping or just cutting out the nonessential expenses, like your daily trip to the coffee shop. If you have kids to buy presents for, consider purchasing gifts earlier rather than later, as prices typically rise the closer to gift-giving holidays you get. Always go overboard giving gifts to your family? Creative strategies like drawing names out of a hat so everyone buys a single gift for one designated person instead of presents for everyone in the family can help bring down costs as well.

Avoid the temptation of specialty store credit cards

During the holidays, when shopping madness is at its peak, many retail stores will offer special discounts and deals to customers who open credit cards through the store. While it might seem like you’re getting a good deal, these cards often aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Many of them charge supremely high APRs and more fees than you can shake a stick at, and while some might offer promotional 0% APR on purchases for a specified time period, often this is in the form of deferred interest. What this means is that when your 12 months (for example) is over, if you haven’t paid your balance in full, you may be charged back interest on purchases for the entire time period since you opened the card. Ideally, your budget will ensure that you are able to fully pay off any purchases you make during the holidays by the time any promotional 0% intro APR dries up — but we all know that life can get in the way of even the best laid plans, so you’ll want to avoid credit cards that penalize you for this.

Use a credit card with a long 0% intro APR on purchases

There are plenty of credit cards out there that offer true 0% intro APRs on purchases. During the promotional time period, you won’t accrue interest on the balance you’re carrying, and when the 0% intro APR runs out, interest will only begin to accrue on anything you haven’t paid. Not only are there a number of credit cards offering 12, 15 and even 18 months of 0% intro APR on purchases, but some of these cards earn rewards on the purchases you make and offer hefty intro bonuses as well — meaning you can make some money back on your holiday shopping!

Which credit cards are ideal for avoiding holiday debt? Here are a few of our top picks:

If you want to avoid paying interest for as long as possible …

stay out of holiday debt The BankAmericard credit card offers an enticing 18-month 0% intro APR on purchases, which is 1.5 years without any interest! On top of that, this card doesn’t charge an annual fee or penalty APR, so you won’t have to worry about your APR increasing if you happen to miss a payment. In addition to the long 0% intro APR on purchases, cardholders also get 18 months of 0% intro APR on balance transfers made in the first 60 days. There is a 3% or $10 minimum balance transfer fee, but if you are currently making high-interest payments on another credit card, this one-time fee will probably be worth what you’ll save overall. Other perks of this card, which requires good to excellent credit for approval (typically, scores of 700 or higher), include FICO scores from TransUnion for free and access to online credit education.

Not sure if this card is the right pick? See how it stacks up against the Wells Fargo Platinum Card, which offers an equally long 0% intro APR.

If you want to earn cash back with your purchases …

stay out of holiday debtThe Discover it Cash Back card is a cash back earning champ, and it’s an excellent choice for your holiday shopping because now through Dec. 31, 2018 it earns 5% cash back on Amazon.com and wholesale club purchases (up to the quarterly maximum, currently $1,500, then it earns 1%) as well as 1% cash back on all other purchases. Not only that, but new cardholders can take advantage of the Cashback Match bonus in time for the holiday season next year — that’s because this bonus matches all of the cash back you earn in your first year as a cardholder after that year is up. So, $300 earned in your first 12 months is matched with another $300 for a total of $600! You won’t have to worry about interest, either, as Discover it Cash Back features a 14-month 0% intro APR on purchases as well as balance transfers (with a 3% balance transfer fee) — after the 0% intro APR expires, a go-to variable rate applies. Cardholder perks like social security number monitoring and the ability to stop activity on your card at the push of a button with the Freeze it feature, along with free TransUnion FICO scores, will help protect you against fraud perpetrated by the Grinches of the world. Plus, this card’s lack of annual fee or foreign transaction fees will save you even more. Best of all, this card requires average to excellent credit for approval (typically considered scores of 670 or higher).

stay out of holiday debt If you like your rewards a little more on the straightforward side, the Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card could be your ticket this holiday season (and beyond). It earns an unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase you make, meaning you won’t have to work around categories or purchase caps. On top of that, you not only get 0% intro APR on purchases for the first 12 months, but purchases you make using mobile wallets (e.g., Apple Pay or Google Pay) will earn a boosted 1.8% cash back for the first 12 months. When it comes time to redeem your cash back, you can do so in the form of a direct deposit to a Wells Fargo checking or savings account, a cash withdrawal at a Wells Fargo ATM, a paper check, gift cards, merchandise and travel. Cardholders can also take advantage of a 12-month 0% intro APR on balance transfers (with an intro 3% balance transfer fee for the first 12 months, 5% after), mobile phone protection that covers up to $600 in covered theft or damage on up to 2 claims per year (with a $25 deductible per claim) and no annual fee. This card requires good to excellent credit (usually considered a credit score of 700 or higher) for approval.

The holidays are full of merriment, but that doesn’t mean you have to shop yourself into a hole. Find more tips on managing your finances by following our personal finance blog.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This content was accurate at the time of this post, but card terms and conditions may change at any time. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.