5 ways you're wasting money during the holidays

It's a yearly tradition for many consumers. Every January, you suddenly realize you have less money than normal. And then you realize you're poor because in December, you mistakenly thought you were very rich.

Want to end that tradition this year? Start by looking at how you're spending your money. There may be no avoiding splurging during the holidays, but you can at least try to spend your holiday money smarter – and make sure you aren't wasting your money in these ways.

1. You're making financial decisions with your heart, not your head. Amanda Mulfinger, a psychologist who owns a small group practice just outside of Minneapolis, believes this is where many consumers go wrong.

"Part of the reason people spend so much money during the holidays is because they're chasing the idealized picture of the holiday that they have in their heads. It doesn't feel fun to just set a budget and stick to it," she says. "We believe that the more money we spend, the better the chances that we'll be able to purchase the perfect holiday."

[See: Prepare Your Finances for the Holidays.]

Her recommendation? If we focus more on what we love about the holidays, beyond the shopping part, and we make it a point to engage in non-spending activities, whether that's baking Christmas cookies with friends or volunteering at a soup kitchen, then suddenly, "the holidays are both more meaningful and a lot less expensive."

2. Your gift list is too long. Dawn Casey-Rowe, a social studies high school teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, who just finished writing an upcoming book, "A Broke Teacher's Guide to Success," suggests considering whether someone can be cut from your gift list.

Sure, it sounds cruel, but Casey-Rowe points out that "many times, we buy out of guilt or obligation while the other party is doing the same thing. If you can get a no-buy agreement with some people, that will go a long way to helping you reduce holiday costs."

You can always be truthful and explain that it's nothing personal, but you're trying to save money. Most people will likely understand that.

3. You're glued to social media. You may not realize it, but social media can affect buying patterns.

Vassilis Dalakas, a consumer psychology specialist and a professor of marketing at Cal State University–San Marcos, says you might save money by staying away from Facebook. After all, your friends and family may be posting photos of shopping bag after shopping bag or of elaborate holiday parties that they're throwing.

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Although it may be more convenient to purchase flowers online, if you have time, it's best to locate a local florist near the person you want to send flowers to. According to a study by Cheapism.com, you're more likely to pay less and receive a better bouquet for your money when you use a local florist. 

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You may not realize it, but when you purchase furniture online, you also have to pay for delivery and surcharge fees. In order to avoid paying these unwanted costs, it's easier to get it in person. For example, when buying furniture in-store, you're able to negotiate a better price and maybe even convince the salesperson to throw in free delivery. 

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Much like shopping for flowers, it is best to purchase your groceries at an actual grocery store. When you purchase them in person, you have the opportunity ensure you are choosing the best meats, produce, etc. -- something you can't do when ordering online.

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As beach season rapidly approaches, you probably want to invest in a few new swimsuits. However, before you make that online purchase you'll want to heed this warning. Trae Bodge, senior editor at RetailMeNot, says, " Fit can fluctuate even among suits from the same brand...  and many online retailers don’t allow swimsuit returns if the packaging has been opened or there’s evidence the suit has been worn." 

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Social Media Followers 
We get it, social media is addicting.  While it may be cool to have over 10,000 followers, buying them can be risky. Depending on the social media site you are using, the followers you purchase can be deleted if they are considered spam accounts. 

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Unless advised by your doctor, you should avoid buying medicine online at all costs. It can be tempting to get off-brand products, but you may be unknowingly purchasing illegal or counterfeit drugs. 

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The internet has made it possible to cut out the middleman when dealing with major purchases, but sometimes, that salesperson is needed. If you're buying a car for the first time, it may be best to get it at a dealership. When you get a car online, you're taking away the opportunity to test it out first and negotiate a better deal. 

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Knockoff Accessories 
While getting counterfeit bags and jewelry is cheaper than buying the real thing, you should do so with much caution. Oftentimes, these items are sold on unsecured sites which can lead to either your computer getting a virus or your identity being stolen. 

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While you can find an array of pets being sold online, it is always safest to purchase one in person. Much like furniture, you may have to deal with excessive delivery fees, and what's more, your pet can get sick or even worse. 

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Fragile Items
If you're truly invested in a fragile or irreplaceable item, it's highly recommended to buy and pick it up in the store. This cuts out any chances of a delivery person dropping and breaking your prized possession. 

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"They essentially establish norms," Dalakas says.

And if their normal is in a higher financial bracket than your normal, you could be in trouble. After all, Dalakas points out, we all have a desire to win.

"So not only are [we] likely to follow those norms established by our peers but we are also likely to try and do better than them, which means spending even more money," he says.

[See: Your Ultimate Holiday Tipping Guide.]

4. You're overdoinggift cards. Arguably, one of the best ways to waste money is to get everyone on your list gift cards. Look at the math. Unless you're getting everyone $10 gift cards, you're probably buying gift cards worth $25, $50 or more, depending who you're buying for. So let's say you're shopping for your brother-in-law. You want to get him something nice, but you want to avoid that tradition of being broke in January.

Now, you can give him a $50 gift card to his favorite restaurant or home improvement store, and he'll probably appreciate the gift (he'd better). But unless you're going to a gift card reselling website, like GiftCardGranny.com or Cardpool.com, you're almost certainly going to spend $50 on that $50 gift card. But if you shop and look for deals, hypothetically speaking, you might buy him a sweater and slacks on sale for a total of $35. He does well, and you've saved yourself $15.

These numbers add up, and if you plan on buying a lot of gift cards, you will save time, but you will be killing any chance to save money.

[See: 11 Ways to Save Time and Money.]

5. You wait until the last minute. Starting early means you'll have more time to give a loved one something meaningful and relatively inexpensive, like, say, a handmade scrapbook.

It also means you have more time to look for sales and consider what your friend or family member really needs.

"Do a little detective work to see where they shop, what they were looking to buy, if they have an Amazon wish list," Casey-Rowe suggests, adding that too often, we end up getting the recipient what we would like to receive. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, as Casey-Rowe says, if the gift isn't used or is underappreciated, "that creates waste."

And, really, if you're smart about how you buy your gifts, you're really giving yourself at least two presents – less stress and more money.

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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