Dinner parties. Holiday fetes. Gifts, gifts and more gifts. With the holidays looming, it may be time to hone one budget-redeeming skill:
It may not exactly be in the spirit of giving. But learning how to decline some invitations now - and throughout the year - can be key to hanging onto cash for goals that are important to you.
Consider the numbers: Some 40 percent of consumers have already started holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation, an industry trade association. And on average, holiday-related spending, including presents, decorations and food, will add up to $817 per person, plus $107 for nongift purchases. (You can't pass up a good deal when you see one, after all.)
When it comes to charitable giving, Americans donate an average of 3.1 percent of their before-tax income, according to JustGive, an online resource matching donors with charities. About half of all giving occurs between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
But becoming too giving with your money can lead to a not-so-happy new year. Here's how to keep social obligations from turning into a financial drag.
Rank holiday dollars.
Just like any other area of your budget, you need to set priorities. How much do you want to earmark for presents? How much for your New Year's party? And how much for wine and other gifts you bring to events?
Keep in mind that there may be some obligations you can't pass up: Participating in a gift swap at work, for example, may be an important way to build camaraderie with co-workers.
"What's at stake here, $5?" said Don Gabor, a communications trainer and the author of Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations. "That's the right time to participate: The investment is low but the impact is great."
Even when you decide to partake, it's OK to set limits for how much you will spend. Just make sure you're upfront about those boundaries.
"I think it's best to be direct," Gabor said.
He added: "If you don't set limits you're really at the mercy of just about everyone and, in the end, you're the one who is going to suffer."
So if you're out to dinner with friends and there's debate about whether to order a bottle of wine favored by critic Robert Parker or one that compares with Two Buck Chuck, make clear which one you can afford.
Don't be afraid to speak up when it comes time to split the bill, especially if your friends ordered filet mignon and you stuck with salad. Just point out that your portion cost significantly less and that you'll put in the proper amount for your meal, tax and tip.
And well before you exchange gifts, if your budget is tight suggest some limits in advance, such as a maximum dollar amount.
Even when you decide to decline an invitation keep your response positive, suggests Kare Anderson, a communications expert and publisher of Say It Better, a monthly newsletter.
"People most remember what you say at the beginning and the end," she said.
Say a friend asks you to donate money to a cause, but you don't have the cash to spare. Anderson recommends you begin your response by acknowledging how important the cause is to your friend and how you admire his or her efforts.
As you turn down the request, keep it positive still: "It's a good cause and thank you for thinking of me. It's just not my goal." Or, "I won't be able to make it work for me this year."
You don't have to give specific, financial reasons for your decision.
"It's not their business," Anderson said. "Keep to the holiday spirit, but remember what it is that you can - and want - to do."
Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.