The day after Christmas means a lot of different things to a lot of different people – obligatory gift returns, post-Christmas sales, pouring the last of the eggnog in your coffee, an end to holiday music in public spaces and on public airwaves. But it also means that 2014 is knocking on the door – as those dreaded holiday shopping credit card bills. If your budget is feeling as stretched as your girth after a seemingly unending string of holiday parties, you don't have to ask family and friends to return their gifts. Instead, there are five things you can do between now and when you watch that ball drop on New Year's Eve that will save you money.
|Make those post-Christmas returns promptly|
Gone are the days when you could return any unwanted gift for cash if you just kept the tags on and maybe returned with a receipt. Instead, some retailers now only offer store credit if the purchase is more than 14 days old; and, if you don't have the receipt, you'll get back the lowest price their computers know they've ever charged for it. So if you are making returns (for yourself or others), do it promptly so that you get the full value in cash of what you paid for.
|Clean your closets for a good cause|
If your family is anything like mine, the gifts you guys just received from family and friends probably exceeded what little unoccupied space you had to fit it in (especially if you have a young child). So while you're making space this weekend, take your gently-used clothing, household items — even toys — and donate them to your favorite local charity before Ryan Seacrest and his slightly frozen friends start screaming "Happy New Year" from Times Square. That way, when you do your taxes early next year, you'll be able to take a deduction for it almost immediately, as opposed to having to wait until April 2015.
|Let the "Season Of Giving" last a little longer|
Although you might've had a lovely holiday, there are millions of people throughout the world who didn't, and could use your help. Plus, contributions to a qualified charity are tax deductible. So scope out your budget and, if you can, make your donations before the end of the year so that you can take a deduction before 2015.
|Make any big purchases now|
After all that holiday shopping, it's easy to feel either a sense of fatigue with conspicuous consumption or concern about your finances – or both. But if you know you're going to need to buy a new car soon (or you just have to have that new MacBook Pro), signing on the dotted line before the sun sets on 2013 means that you would qualify to deduct the sales taxes on your tax returns next year – a little tax break that expires when the year does. (Currently, you can deduct either state and local income taxes paid or sales taxes paid. So, you'll need to do some math, but the sales tax on a new car may be large enough to outweigh the income taxes you've paid.)
|Check your credit card, bank statements and credit reports now|
Since you're already on your computer, (but only if you're on a secure connection, please), open a new tab in your browser and review your online bank and credit card accounts to make absolutely sure that all charges you see are actually ones you made. If they're not, timely reports to your financial institutions can save you time and money. Then check your credit reports, available free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com, and make sure they are accurate, as well. If they contain either inaccurate or incomplete information, contact the three major national credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Trans Union) immediately and start their dispute resolution processes. Clearing up your credit reports will help your credit score and save you money in the long run. If you want to monitor your credit more regularly, you can use Credit.com's free Credit Report Card for a breakdown, updated monthly, of the information in your credit report along with free credit scores.
Saving money isn't always about the latte you give up or the coupon you use: it's about planning ahead, timing your spending and making sure that you're making decisions about your finances rather than letting things "just happen" to them. But why are you still reading? You've only got a couple days left in 2013 to create a difference for yourself in 2014!
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.