At the end of the year, our thoughts turn to giving. It's also the time of year when the retail holiday machine kicks into high gear.
It's a bit of a paradox, and given the tendency to save so much of the giving and the buying for the last minute, this season of joy can leave us feeling guilty, frenetic and out of control.
My advice is to build on the spirit of Thanksgiving. Write down or say aloud what you are thankful for — or maybe the one good thing that happened that day. For me, that usually involves one of my walks with the dogs, but it could range from a quick phone call with an old friend or a funny experience in the grocery store.
And be charitable, even if it doesn't get you a tax deduction.
Because the new tax law nearly doubled the standard deduction, 85 to 90 percent of Americans will not be entitled to deduct their contributions. But many give purely for altruistic concern for others, not to reduce their tax bills.
Regardless of your motivation for giving, here are three important steps to keep in mind:
•Confirm that the charity is legitimate. Do not provide any personal or financial information until you've researched the charity. Use the IRS' Exempt Organizations Select Check Tool to confirm the organization's federal tax status.
•Investigate the charity's financial health. Once you have confirmed that the group is legitimate, you can also see what others say about the organization and how much of your donation goes to supporting programs, as opposed to overhead. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Watch, GuideStar and Charity Navigator are all helpful resources.
•Make the contribution using a check or credit card. Never send cash donations or wire money to someone claiming to be a charity. If you are planning to send a check, your payments must be postmarked by midnight Dec. 31 — just writing "Dec. 31" on the check does not automatically qualify you for a deduction; and pledges aren't deductible until paid. Donations made with a credit card are deductible as of the date the account is charged, so if you are a little late in the process, you probably should stick to credit cards.
OK, so now on to the other part of the season — spending. With economic growth on the upswing and unemployment at a 49-year low, you may be thankful this year for more stability or satisfaction at work, a slightly larger paycheck or better job prospects for the future.
You may also feel entitled to spend a little more to celebrate your good fortune, but here's a piece of financial advice from Buzz Kill Jill: Don't spend too much money! Before you get dragged down the holiday rabbit hole, get your head on straight and don't go crazy. That means starting with a list of what you can afford and sticking to your game plan.
According to Deloitte's annual forecast for the holiday season, shoppers are using a blended approach to the shopping season, planning to conduct both online and in-store research before making a purchase. To help, download such apps as ShopSavvy, which allows you to scan the bar code of any product and compare the best prices available; Shopular, which provides news of deals, coupons and location-based notifications; and Flipp, which creates digital versions of circulars from retailers and combines coupons with these local flyers for savings. You should also check out Honey, a free browser extension that automatically finds and applies coupon codes at checkout for over 30,000 shopping sites.
Good luck navigating the paradoxical season!