How to keep unexpected holiday expenses from wrecking your budget


The holidays are full of surprises. Some come wrapped up nicely and placed under a tree. Others may take the form of a burnt turkey dinner or sky-high electricity bill.

These surprise expenses can thrash your holiday budget, leaving you to start off the new year trying to crawl out of debt. But if you're prepared and are on the lookout for some of the most common unexpected expenses that many households experience during the holidays, you can put yourself in a better financial position to start the new year.

Here are some unexpected expenses to look out for this holiday season.

Medical emergencies

Holiday lights and other outdoor decorations can cause trouble during the winter months. Data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSD) shows that more than 18,000 people ended up in the emergency room due to "holiday decorating-related injuries" in 2017 and, in 2018, five people were killed.

Make sure to take it easy when hanging lights and maneuvering around decorations, especially in icy and snowy conditions.

Vet visits

Your furry friend can easily find themselves at the doctor, too, during the holidays. Pets mistake things like ribbons, wrapping paper, and ornaments for treats, which can lead to all sorts of digestion issues and even poisonings.

An unexpected vet visit can be extremely expensive. Average costs can run between $800 and $1,500 per visit for uninsured pets. Consider buying pet insurance, which costs around $35 per month on average.

Utility bills

Most people probably expect their heating bills to spike during the winter months, but depending on where you live, you may be unpleasantly surprised by how much your decor can cost you — like your Christmas lights.

A recent study from Simple Thrifty Living says that the average household will spend around $20 to power their light displays over the season, or seven hours per day for 34 days. In some states, that cost is $46 or more, depending on the volume and specific type of lights used. It may not sound like much, but a higher power bill can hurt consumers already working with a thin budget.

Here's how to save money on holiday spending

Video by David Fang

Fraud and theft

The holidays are an active time of year for thieves and scammers. Package theft is fairly common, with roughly 1 in 10 people saying they've had a package stolen from their home. Sometimes retailers or credit card companies will pay for a replacement order, but you can't bet on it.

"The holidays are a bonanza for cybercriminals," too, Dave Baggett, co-founder and CEO of anti-phishing start-up Inky recently told CNBC Make It. "People are buying a lot of things over a short period of time, and they are hurried about it. This presents opportunities for crooks."

Watch out for phishing scams in your email, avoid sketch offers for free stuff, and monitor your accounts and credit report for any anomalies. Replacing stolen gifts and dealing with the aftermath of fraud can further eat into your holiday budget.

The holidays are a bonanza for cybercriminals.
Dave Baggett
Co-founder and CEO, Inky

Cooking and candle mishaps

Fires are more common than you might think. CPSD data says that unattended cooking the top cause of fires during the winter months. There are 1,800 cooking fires on average every Thanksgiving around the country. So keep an eye on your holiday hams and turkeys.

Be mindful of where you place your Christmas tree and wrapped gifts — if they're too close to the fireplace or a lit candle, they could catch fire. CPSD data shows that for each year between 2014 and 2016, Christmas tree and candle fires killed 10 people, injured 150, and caused around $50 million in property damage.

'Avoid the negative cycle'

Hopefully, house fires and trips to the E.R. are rare occurrences. Still, it never hurts to plan for an emergency, or for those expenses that you may not have anticipated but that are likely to cost you more money. That's also why it's a good idea to make sure you have an emergency fund with enough cash to help you deal with surprise expenses.

Another solution: Bake some of these expenses into your holiday budget for next year, says Justin Halverson, a financial advisor at Great Waters Financial in Minnesota. "You can use [those expenses] as your baseline for next year — it'll become easier to budget next year," he says.

"You can avoid the negative cycle and you create a positive one."

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