Thanksgiving: Overeating Economics

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In just a few weeks, the country will enter a collective turkey coma. Families will visit, calories will be consumed in excess, football will be watched and played, and throughout it all wallets will be drained.

Thanksgiving serves as an excellent example of a holiday that sneakily steals your money. With Christmas and birthdays, we go into the festivities knowing that hundreds and hundreds of dollars will go toward gifts. With so much vacation time surrounding the winter holidays, we can also expect to spend a fair amount on travel.

Thanksgiving presents one meal as the main expense, putting focus on the cost of a turkey and appetizers, when we all know the holiday involves so much more. The Wednesday before turkey day is the busiest travel day of the year, with the following Sunday almost as treacherous. This means plane tickets cost an arm and a leg and the travel-induced gridlock leads to extra meals out and more money spent on gas. If you haven’t crunched the numbers in years past, track your incidental purchases the day before Thanksgiving this year; try not to panic when it’s 5x what you expect.

With Thanksgiving being the important family holiday it is, you can’t expect to avoid spending. Food alone will set you back a month’s salary when you’re cooking for a party of 10, so you have to budget ahead for the event. Nevertheless, corners can be cut and costs reduced. As with everything else, a little planning can help steer you clear of those last-minute purchases that quickly add up.

I’m going to divide this holiday into three parts: the prep, the event, and the aftermath, and offer some ideas for how to make each leg of your Thanksgiving journey a little more affordable. With time running out, we better get started.

The Preparation

Before you can prepare your turkey, you have to tie up a million other loose ends. While we sometimes treat this day like a bigger-than-normal dinner, it’s closer to a week-long extravaganza. There’s hosting and cleaning and a cornucopia of ingredients to buy that don’t normally make it on a shopping list. And, if you aren’t in charge of grocery shopping, there’s a good chance you have to deal with a long drive or a plane ride.

If you don’t put money aside or build up frequent flyer miles in advance, Thanksgiving travel will leave you hurting. There’s no good trick for purchasing flights on busy travel days. Airlines know they’ve got you between a rock and a hard place; when push comes to shove, your bank account will get pushed and shoved. If you’re driving, you can’t just ask your car to use less gas. Still, you can make every effort to dilute the pain.

Flying

Two quick tips for flying on Thanksgiving:

1. Book as early as possible

2. Don’t travel on Wednesday or Sunday

I understand this advice may be hard to follow. If you work through Tuesday, you might have no other choice than a $600 one-way ticket. And, if your Thanksgiving location doesn’t get settled on until early November, you have no opportunity to plan ahead.

Whatever your situation may be, it’s worth checking out CheapOair. Most flight compiling sites operate in the same way, opening a million browser windows and confusing you until you make a purchase just to end the process. CheapOair does an excellent job of limiting the confusion and presenting the best prices.

A big benefit of CheapOair comes from seeing alternate travel dates and airports. While this causes frustration when you need something specific, it can lead you toward a bizarre but affordable travel day. I once spent a night in Portland, OR, because a late flight to the wrong state and a hotel room cost that much less than flying directly to where I needed to be.

The ideal flight won’t be the cheapest flight. If you can make it work within your itinerary, consider flying on Thanksgiving morning (provided you can’t travel the Sunday or Monday before the holiday). You may have to choose between maximizing time with family and getting the most out of your dollars. It’s not a fun choice, but when is travel exclusively fun?

Driving

If you don’t have to travel thousands of miles, a Thanksgiving drive provides a cheaper alternative and the potential for some road trip fun. It also puts you in danger or endless bumper-to-bumper traffic, trapped in the car with screaming children and no hope of escape.

It doesn’t have to be so bleak. Leaving at the right time (not Wednesday) or breaking the trip into a couple of legs can make all the difference. It’s also important to plot out those gas stops. Fueling up in the middle of nowhere can run you an extra $1-2 a gallon, and that can make an already tenuous travel day almost unbearable.

Driving families should also remember that Sunday after Thanksgiving is another day when the whole country seems to be driving at the same time. It might not work for everyone, but my family has had excellent Thanksgiving trips in which we’ve pushed to a Thursday/Monday travel schedule. It adds some chaos to the actual day of Thanksgiving, but the relaxed Sunday always makes up for it. And, if time is money, the altered schedule saved us millions.

Food

If you have the good fortune of guests coming to you, that probably leaves you in charge of food prep. The money you spend certainly depends on how many people are coming to dinner, but a strategic menu can keep the final grocery bill in check. A few ways to approach the catering:

● Stock up on reusable foods

● Outsource the easy stuff

● Make complementary dishes

We all have family recipes and different dietary restrictions, so I’ll keep this part pretty general. In short, think about the food items you’ll be likely to incorporate into other meals once the holiday weekend has passed. We can get so far on repeat dishes, but eventually we need to shake things up. Take a shot at turkey enchiladas or turning mashed potatoes into the crust for a quiche. Saving food will save you money and coming up with new recipes will make you and your family happy.

As for the outsourcing, see if you can put guests in charge of things like dinner rolls, drinks, and dessert. If the host provides the main courses, no one will feel like you skirted responsibility. By having other people take on smaller contributions that can really add up when put on one tab, everyone wins and you feel less put out. You don’t have to turn Thanksgiving into a potluck (though that’s a fine option), but you can still share the responsibilities.

Finally, as you piece together your menu, try to find sides and main courses that use the same spices and share ingredients. Maybe there’s a good stuffing recipe that calls for the paprika you’re already sprinkling over the deviled eggs. You don’t have to cut back on the amount of food, just on the accessories used to make those dishes. And, if you historically throw out a lot of food on Sunday morning, maybe consider cutting back on the number of platters.

It’s not too late. You still have time to get creative with your Thanksgiving planning, whether it’s travel or meal prep. A little shift in your plan might save you hundreds of dollars without disrupting your holiday traditions.

Thursday and Friday

When you’re in the throws of it, you have to make decisions on the fly. You find yourself cooking at 11am on Thursday, realizing the actual meal won’t be served for five hours and you’re absolutely STARVING. Suddenly you’re sprinting to the nearest open restaurant and eating whatever gets served most quickly.

Then, on Friday, you head out for a day of fun and shopping with friends and family. You’re on vacation, either from food prep or your actual home, and you want to treat yourself. Within a few hours, you’ve purchased an HD TV and a steak sandwich because you’ve thrown all caution and calorie counting to the wind. While you certainly deserve this reward for surviving Thanksgiving, you also deserve a retirement account with money in it.

Exhaustion spending is a real phenomenon. Whether during a long day of travel or after too many hours with family, people have a tendency to ignore their better judgment and cave in to frivolous spending. Resisting this urge takes supreme willpower, so sometimes the best choice is to, instead of denying yourself all together, find a way to treat yourself within reason.

If you must cater to your materialistic self the day after Thanksgiving, make sure any purchases address two points of criteria:

● Meet a lasting need

● Earn some sort of reward

If you have a TV, you do not need a second one. If your mom or cousin or brother-in-law has a TV, that person does not need another flatscreen. No matter how amazing the deals are on Black Friday, lower cost has no bearing on necessity. You do not change your life requirements based on the prices at Walmart.

Once you agree to that first rule, you narrow down the field of where you shop and what you might shop for. I’d love for everyone to avoid the stampedes at 5am the morning after Thanksgiving, because those events present a real health hazard. You also run a higher risk of buying something you don’t need when you surround yourself with all the nifty displays those big retailers set up.

You don’t have to go to a physical store to find amazing deals. Last year Hulu ran a special, offering the streaming service for $.99/month for a year. Plenty of online retailers will get into the mix in 2019, and most of them won’t wait until Cyber Monday. As annoying as pop up ads and internet banners can be, it’s worth taking a few extra seconds to see what after-Thanksgiving deals online retailers have to offer.

When it comes to cashback and rewards, Rakuten is a great sight for digital saving. The company partners with a few thousand stores to promote deals and provide cashback on your orders. As you build up points, you work your way toward a real rebate check that can go straight into your bank account. Since Rakuten connects you with top-tier retailers, you know the products are good and you can easily verify the bargain pricing.

If you’ve never used the sight before and expect to do some holiday shopping on November 29 from the comfort of your pajamas, go sign up now and enjoy a $10 bonus in addition to the rewards you’ll eventually earn. While shopping might be unavoidable, smart shopping can make it less of a financial strain.

Don’t let Black Friday sneak up on you and your budget. Plan your purchases now so you don’t walk into December with a bunch of credit card debt and no plan for paying it back.

The Aftermath

With family gone, your house in shambles, and work starting back up on Monday, Thanksgiving recovery can take days, weeks, or potentially all of December.

Whether you travel or host, phasing back into reality won’t happen instantly. A holiday weekend takes its toll, and for me, it’s pretty evenly spread across these three arenas:

● Physical health

● Financial health

● Mental health

The first hurdle announces itself pretty clearly. Three straight days of eating turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing has me feeling lethargic and, some years, a little pudgy. The best thing I can do is get a jumpstart on the fitness resolution that too many people leave for January 1st. Since I’m about to start eating Christmas cookies by the dozen, I need those first few weeks of December to remind my body that I do, in fact, care about it.

Unfortunately, most of us head straight back to the office and have to get caught up on work during that final holiday stretch. Creating time for exercise is always hard, but it’s extra difficult in December. For those of you struggling to make exercise part of your routine, I recommend bodybuilding.com. In addition to protein snacks and workout equipment, you can enroll in classes and programs that let you work out from home. Having the option to burn calories after the kids go to sleep might be the difference between being 15 pounds overweight on Christmas morning or just a manageable 5lbs too big.

Personally, conquering the physical hangover from Thanksgiving needs to be step one. No matter how much overspending happened, I can’t start thinking about money matters until I get those endorphins moving. With your body headed in the right direction, you can check your spending, take a brief moment to scold yourself, then make a plan to fix it.

There’s no worse month than December for frugality, and yet you need to spend wisely if you want to have a shot at getting off to a good start in 2020. Ideally, you made a conscious effort through most of 2019 to set aside money for Christmas travel and gifts. If not, you have a week or so after Thanksgiving to crunch the numbers and see what’s possible. At the very least, recognize the frivolous spending that happened during your turkey day travels and do your best not to repeat them a few weeks later.

If you use credit cards, don’t let the holiday season become an excuse to skip a payment or run up a huge balance. If you start that at Thanksgiving and don’t tighten the purse strings before Christmas, you could fall into a vicious cycle that will leave you with unpaid debt heading into Thanksgiving 2020. Pay down your balances and shop responsibly; don’t let pervasive consumerism drive your decisions and cause problems down the road.

The slowest recovery from Thanksgiving might be the mental one. All that time with extended family, dealing with hosting or traveling, and then going right into the holiday push can leave your head spinning. This is part of the reason I recommend fudging your travel dates if possible, so you don’t have a highly stressful Sunday that leads right into a highly stressful Monday.

It’s good to acknowledge that holidays aren’t all fun and games and you’re allowed to be exhausted at the end of the weekend. Physical exercise will help, as will taking control of your spending. Allow yourself to feel tired for a day or two before throwing yourself back into the rat race.

We’re about to enter the happiest, most anxiety-inducing time of year. If you give in to your worst instincts, you could head into December in a foul mood with lots of new credit card debt. With a little extra planning and as much self-restraint as you can muster, this will be another Thanksgiving in which you eat a little too much but otherwise come out unscathed.

From all of us at Go Far With Kovar, we wish you and your family a happy Thanksgiving!

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