The 27-year-old from Chicago has spent the past three years paying off a $50,000 debt accumulated from spending beyond her budget.
"When he was young, I gave him a huge Christmas and thought that was the way to do things," Rhea, founder of MyDebtEpiphany.com, a personal finance-focused blog, said of her son. "But I found what he really wants is to spend time with me."
"And I want to spend time with my child and not be working overtime and not getting to experience anything with him at Christmas," she added.
Across the country, in California, Lauren Mochizuki, an emergency room nurse and mom of two, said she also had a Christmas awakening a few years ago when she and her husband accumulated more than $250,000 in debt.
Part of that debt came from the couple's Christmas spending, when even before having kids they would spend thousands of dollars on gifts without any kind of game plan.
"It was like, 'Christmas is here. Time to get out the credit card and buy,'" Mochizuki recalled. "I found it incredibly overwhelming. It was really stressful because nothing was thought about ahead of time or planned for."
Mochizuki, who shares her money saving tips at CasaMochi.com, said planning for Christmas was one way she and her husband tackled their debt.
"It's helped me bring peace during what could be a stressful time," she said. "And because we budget for Christmas throughout the year, we are able to still spend a good amount, which is OK because it’s one of our favorite times of the year."
Mochizuki, like Rhea, found a few simple ways to not be left with a low bank account and high credit card charges come the New Year.
Here are their tips.
Work backwards: Start by writing down the names of all the people you want to buy for and then writing next to their name the amount of money you want to spend. Add up to get a total amount and adjust it as needed to set your Christmas budget.
"Establishing your budget is the first step because then you’ve established that you can be accountable," said Mochizuki, who transfers the list to the notes app on her phone so she has it readily available and visible.
Use a visual reminder: Mochizuki said having something visual to see how much she and her husband were saving helped them pay off their debt.
She's created a Christmas savings tracker to help people track how they are reaching their Christmas savings goal. You can pick it up wherever you are in the savings process, or modify it to keep track of how much you're spending.
Finalize gift ideas now: Mochizuki has a plan for what she's getting everyone on her list by early December so she can keep an eye on the products and buy them when they are on sale.
Check your calendar for non-gift expenses: Tickets to see carolers, bringing a bottle of wine to a Christmas party, buying an ugly sweater for a theme party or participating in a gift exchange at work are the kinds of expenses that can put you over your budget, according to both Rhea and Mochizuki.
They suggest looking at your calendar now to see all that you have planned or would like to do in December and note what each event will cost. Then, make sure to budget for those or take away some of the activities that may be too expensive.
"I love doing things with my family, but I’m always looking for ways to save or find discounts," said Rhea, noting she looks online for free activities and coupons in her area. "What I remember as a kid are not my gifts but free activities we did like going Christmas caroling where my mom worked, wearing pajamas and eating breakfast together."
Keep receipts close by to check for sales: "I keep any printed receipts all in one folder and right by my computer so that way when I have downtime or the kids are in bed I’ll check for five or 10 minutes," said Mochizuki. "If the items I purchased go on sale for less than I originally purchased, I return them, or price check them."
Try a family Secret Santa: "I have four siblings and my husband has three siblings and they have kids as well so it's a lot," said Rhea. "On Thanksgiving when we all meet we put names in a hat and draw one person to give a gift to and we always set a budget."
Plan year-round for Christmas: Holiday shopping is in full swing now, but looking ahead to next year, start saving as soon as the New Year hits.
Rhea puts money for Christmas away each month in a high-yield savings account, while Mochizuki keeps it in her normal savings account but has a Christmas category in her budget tracker so she knows how much money is allocated.
"Technically, Christmas is planned a year in advance because we’re always putting money into that budget," said Mochizuki.