By Stacey L. Bradford
1. Pay down debt. Between gift buying, multiple trips to the grocery store and extra entertaining, most of us overspend during this time of year. "Often people are afraid to even look at their credit card statements after Christmas," says California-based Ginita Wall, cofounder of WIFE.org, a financial education website for women. Help those balances reach zero by monitoring your expenditures and finding a few areas—say, entertainment, groceries and clothing—that you can temporarily trim by 10 percent. Then take that extra cash and begin paying off the card with the lowest balance first. Also, consider exchanging unwanted gift cards on websites such as PlasticJungle.com or GiftCardRescue.com.
2. Give smart. Stay in the holiday spirit by creating a charitable goal for the year. "Plan in advance how much and where you'd like to donate," says Patricia Powell, a financial planner in Martinsville, New Jersey. Earn a tax deduction by cleaning out your closets and giving clothing and household goods to charity. If you leave items at an unattended drop box, keep a written record of your gift and estimate the fair-market value. Check out Goodwill's donating guidelines (amazinggoodwill.com).
3. Plan ahead. The more you put away for your kids' education now, the less you and your children will owe in loan interest later. Plus, if you contribute to a 529 college savings plan, you may qualify for a state tax break. A handful of states offer a deduction on your contribution; check out Savingforcollege.com for details. Even if there aren't any local tax incentives, the investment grows tax-deferred and qualified distributions are tax-free at the federal level.