Things to Do in Late November

Dear Sharon,

During Thanksgiving week, there are several things I do that make the end of the year so much easier:

  • Order my holiday cards
  • Order stamps to mail my holiday cards
  • Review my holiday address list
  • Finish up my charitable contributions

Thanksgiving weekend has always seemed like an endless stretch of free time for me because for many years I was performing in a show or had directed a show that played in the first half of November. I also spent 25 years working in Corporate America, and a four-day weekend was a true rarity. (Now that I’m self-employed, I often work several of the days of Thanksgiving weekend, but it still hasn’t lost its specialness for me.)

Holiday Cards

If you send out photo cards, Thanksgiving weekend is a great time to review all the photos taken throughout the year and select the favorites. Having the whole family around and available to look over the photo card options helps to speed along the decision-making process.

Whether you include photos or not, getting your custom-printed cards ordered in November will get them back to you in record time. And the prices are usually cheaper if you order before December 1.

If you are going to be hand-signing store-bought cards instead of having them custom-printed, you definitely want to get an early start on that. Hopefully you bought your cards on Dec. 26 last year when they went on sale. If not, buy them this weekend while all of the styles are still available. And start signing!

Holiday Stamps

I enjoy getting on the US Postal Service website and browsing the new stamps. There are always so many cute designs. I always order a little extra so that I have stamps to last me well into the new year. Ordering your stamps right after ordering your cards will ensure that you won’t have a holdup in sending the cards out.

Holiday Address List

After ordering my holiday cards and stamps, I review last year’s address list to see what changes need to be made. Unfortunately, there are always a few names that need to be removed because people have passed away. But there are also new friends to be added. And I always have a few friends who have relocated. Updating the list early gives me the time to email or text them and ask them for their new addresses.

Charitable Contributions

I have several clients who wait until the end of the year to make their charitable contributions. Sometimes they simply run out of time before making all the contributions they had intended.

I used to make all my contributions over Thanksgiving weekend to ensure that the acknowledgement letter from each charity had this year’s date on it. In more recent years, I’ve spread out my contributions throughout the year so that I don’t have to do so many at once. Thanksgiving weekend is my final review to make sure I’ve attended to everyone on my list.

What are some of the things that you always wish you had started earlier? Start an end-of-year checklist now that you can pull out in future years on Thanksgiving weekend. Your future self will thank you!

Buying in Bulk

Everybody loves a bargain. And it’s well-known that the larger package will generally cost you less per item than the small one.

But what if space is at a premium? Purchasing decisions should not only be made in terms of dollars and cents. Clutter and storage space should also factor into the mix.

As I discussed in my recent post The Dangers of Buy One Get One Free, when you buy more than you need, you are in danger of losing track of the extra items. The shrink-wrapped package of two bottles of Tylenol might cost less per tablet, but if  you forget that you have a second bottle, you haven’t really gained anything.

Buying big bulky things in bulk can be problematic if you are short on storage space. Paper towels, toilet paper, and tissue boxes take up a lot of room. Unless you have a large family and go through these really quickly, you’ll make better use of your limited space if you always have one or two extra on hand, but not eight or ten.

You might think that if you buy a lot of something, you’ll never run out. But if you are someone who doesn’t have a good system for keeping track of when you are on the last one, you are still going to run out. It’s better to buy fewer of them, and to put a sticky note on the last one saying “Order more!” so that you’ll remember to do so when you are opening that one.

If you do your purchasing on Amazon, you can instead save money with their “Subscribe and Save” feature. You’ll need to figure out how quickly you go through an item so that you can set the appropriate subscription frequency, but once you’ve got that worked out, you’ll be able to rest assured that you won’t run out of this item and you’ll still be saving money.

When it comes to purchases of frequently-used items, it’s true that less is more.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

I have written in the past about how coupons and sales cause us to behave in ways that waste our time. (You can read these rants in Coupons: To Clip or Not to Clip? and Sucked in by a Sale.) I have a new chapter to add to the legion of examples in which we waste so much time to save money.

My daughter wears contact lenses. Earlier this year, she went to the eye doctor for her annual exam and she ordered new contact lenses. A full year’s worth.

When she got home and told me, I asked her why she ordered so many. Why not just six months? Did she have the storage space in her room for a year’s worth of contact lenses? (We certainly don’t have space for them in the bathroom.) And what if her prescription changes during the year?

She explained that the contact lens company was offering a $200 rebate if you purchased a full year’s worth of lenses. I was briefly mollified, but only briefly, because the next thing I knew, the receipt and rebate form were on my desk. In other words, if I wanted to get the rebate, I was required to put in the effort.

Muttering audibly, I went to the website and entered my info and scanned the documents and did everything required. A month later, I received via e-mail a virtual Visa card worth $200.

Remember the good old days when rebates came as checks in the mail that you could just deposit in your bank account and be done with it? I hate when a rebate comes in the form of a gift card. The burden was now on me to use this card by the expiration date.

Since it was not a physical card, I started using it for various on-line purchases. I kept track of how much was left on the card so that I would be sure to use it all up.

The card expires tomorrow and I still have $6.81 left. I’ve had that balance left for months. I’m fairly certain that I will not be able to use it up, as I rarely order such a small amount in an on-line purchase. (I tried using it for a partial payment on Amazon but it didn’t work.)

It has been such a waste of my time to (1) apply for the rebate, (2) keep track of the balance, and (3) monitor my on-line purchases to see if they come out to $6.81 or less with tax added. Although $200 sounds like a nice gift, it is really just another way to induce consumers to spend more money than they need to, just like coupons and sales do.

I’m now adding “rebate” to my list of dirty words.

Turn Your Unused Gift Cards into Charity

I’m guessing that you have some unused gift cards stashed away somewhere. You may have forgotten about them. Even if you didn’t, you may not remember how much money is left on them.

An article on cnbc.com posted last year states: “Half of Americans currently own unredeemed gift cards or store credits, according to a new survey from Bankrate. The average person with unused gift cards is sitting on $167 in free money.”

Gift cards are a convenience for the gift giver but a bit of a burden on the recipient. Most people put them aside with the intent to use them someday, but someday never comes.

If you’d like to put those gift cards to good use and remove the burden of having to remember to use them, consider donating them to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. St. Jude’s policy is that “families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.” What better way to use your gift card balances than to help support their mission?

Donating your gift cards is easy. Go to stjude.cardcash.com and follow the prompts. Because St. Jude’s is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, you’ll get a tax-deductible letter acknowledging the value of your donation.

Managing Your Charitable Contributions

If you’ve ever donated money to a charitable organization, you’ve probably experienced the immediate and ongoing communications from that charity asking you for more money. While I understand the organization’s need to generate funds, it’s frustrating to me that this is how some of my donation is being used. Is it likely that, having just made a donation, I will make another one so soon? Well, maybe I would if I were disorganized and didn’t know how recently I had just donated to them.

That is one reason why it’s important to track your charitable donations. Another is to simplify the reporting of your donations at tax time. Since we are at the beginning of the year, this is a good time for you to start tracking your donations, if you aren’t already.

I manage my charitable giving in a simple Excel spreadsheet. It has the following columns:

  • Charitable organization
  • Date of gift
  • Amount
  • The same three columns for last year.

I keep my spreadsheet sorted by the name of the organization. When I get a piece of mail from a charity asking me to donate, I can easily look it up on my spreadsheet and see when I last donated. I like having last year’s donation information easily available, since I donate to most of my pet charities once a year, and it’s helpful to see when I donated last year, and how much.

Having my donation information in a spreadsheet makes it easy for me to know exactly how much I have donated that year.  At the bottom of the spreadsheet, I also keep a list of my “in kind” donations — that is, the thrift shops to whom I have brought bags of goods, along with my estimate of how much those goods were worth. At tax time, I can easily report to my accountant the total amount of my tax-deductible cash contributions, as well as my in kind donations.

In case you get audited (as I did this past spring), it’s also important for you to keep the acknowledgement letter that you get from each charity. It tells you how much of your donation was tax-deductible, and verifies that you received no goods or services in exchange. When I was gathering my papers for my audit, I discovered that for on-line donations, the acknowledgement I received did not always have that information on it. I ended up having to contact some of the charities to ask for the appropriate documentation. That is why I have started making donations by mail again, as the mail acknowledgements are generally better.

If you have no surefire way to track your charitable giving, take a few minutes now to set up a spreadsheet on your computer. You’ll thank me next year at tax time!