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5 tips for holiday saving from bankers who've been there

There are several ways to try to avoid running into budget problems this holiday season. Illustration by Timothy Schmiesing / Special to Forum News Service

FARGO — If anybody has license to be stressed going into the holidays, it’s Kristin Pahl and Kari Bloomquist.

Pahl and her husband just closed on a new house, and she delivered a new baby boy in October. Her friend Bloomquist also just bought a house and got engaged.

However, one thing the two women won’t be stressed about is Christmas spending. The two have become known as budget experts of sorts among friends, family and colleagues at Bell Bank, where they conduct classes for employees on money management.

Both women took on the task of getting their money matters under control about seven years ago. Bloomquist learned the Dave Ramsey plan, which focuses on getting out of debt and saving for retirement, through a book, while Bloomquist took his course at church. Through careful planning, a little bit of sacrifice and tons of motivation, they saw results.

Pahl wiped out about $40,000 of debt in two and a half years, while Bloomquist paid off about $20,000 in that same time period. Both women say they’re far from perfect money managers, but love sharing what they’ve learned with others.

“We’re still learning every day,” says Pahl, teller service manager at Bell Bank.

“I think it’s about learning what works for you,” adds Bloomquist, Bell’s virtual bank manager.

We sat down with the two over a cup of coffee to get advice on how to handle holiday spending without going into debt. Here are some of their tips.

On the same page

Bloomquist and Pahl say don’t be afraid to broach the subject with loved ones earlier in the year about how much you want to spend or if you’ll be getting gifts for each other at all. Bloomquist says she ended up going overboard last year, getting gifts for people she didn’t expect to see.

“I wish I could get to the point where I didn’t feel bad if someone got a gift for me when I didn’t get one for them, but I’m not there yet,” she says.

Instead, try to plan ahead as much as possible about who gets gifts and who might just receive a card. Pahl says it's important to learn how to be OK with getting smaller, less expensive gifts for people and not feel guilty about it.

“A few years ago, Kari and I might have gotten a gift card for each other, a candle and a book,” she says. “But now, you know what, maybe I’ll just give her a book I love or even a favorite nail polish.”

2 birds, 1 stone

Minimalism might be as popular a concept these days as debt reduction, and Bloomquist says she thinks about both when she’s managing her money. Case in point: Last year, she helped pay for a trip to the Pacific Northwest by decluttering her home.

“We paid for the food budget for the trip out of stuff we sold on Facebook and Craigslist,” she says. “I’m planning to do the same thing this Christmas by selling some things from our garage.”

She says when you get in the mindset of decluttering, making a lot of money isn’t always the primary goal, but helps you get in the Christmas spirit.

“Sometimes I won’t sell the items for what they’re worth, but it feels good to donate them to someone in need,” she says.

Speaking of minimalism, Pahl and Bloomquist say we should think about giving experiences instead of things. Kari says her family went in on a group gift for a family photo session for her mom, and she and her fiance are planning something similar for loved ones this year.

“I might say, ‘How about we have a date night and go somewhere we’d never normally go?’ and that becomes our gift to each other," she says.

Homemade gifts

We’ve all heard it’s the thought that counts, and Bloomquist and Pahl say that’s very true. Small gifts given with handwritten notes often mean more than any high-ticket item ever could.

“We’ll get on Pinterest and get ideas for having a homemade Christmas,” Pahl says. “We find ideas and get together with a bunch of girls and work on things. It’s so much fun. We’re getting together and we’re not spending a lot of money.”

She calls it a “crafternoon,” and it’s complete with snacks, beverages and a lot of laughter.

Plan, plan, plan

Christmas budgeting comes down to the core issue of any budget: Plan, plan and plan again. The two women say it’s important to spend a few hours plotting out budgets for the year.

Pahl and her husband were so serious about it a few years ago that they reserved a room in the library where they would buckle down — without distraction — to plan their budget, including setting aside money each year for Christmas spending.

“That’s not to say you never dip into the Christmas jar,” she says. “Life happens, but it’s important to at least try to have money set aside for gifts.”

Pahl says that also means she tightens her yearly budget even more in December.

“If I say ‘no’ to going out to eat once with friends, that means I can buy one more gift,” she says.

“Or, you choose not to have a clothing budget in December and do less traveling. It all adds up,” Bloomquist adds.

Both women say while it’s not always easy to be disciplined with money, in the long run, it’s incredibly rewarding to see what you accomplish when you’re intentional with spending. And that’s even more the case this time of year when so many organizations are looking for some Christmas spirit.

“One of the biggest rewards in all of this is being able to see something that speaks to me and not think twice about being able to donate money to it,” Bloomquist says. “That’s really important. Financial freedom is the buzzword, but it’s really about financial peace and teaching generosity.”

One more idea

Both Bloomquist and Pahl budget throughout the year. Pahl tracks spending through spreadsheets, while Bloomquist divides the money she’ll spend into cash envelopes each paycheck. When the cash is gone, she’s done spending.

But perhaps the most extreme budgeting technique Pahl tries is something she calls “Salon Pahl.” Every six weeks, her husband dyes her hair, saving her hundreds of dollars every year.

“After the kids go to bed, we have a little date night — grab a glass of wine (when I’m not pregnant) and he colors my hair. We chat and it’s become this really fun thing. Plus, he’s a saint. There is that,” she says, grinning.

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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