Once again, Happy Holidays to all!!

For those pets who are celebrating Christmas today, according to NBC News Channel 7 in San Diego, you were expected to have 1.5 times more spent on gifts for you than last year. Pretty good! The list of gifts for you is apparently getting longer and more creative every year, with $62 being the average cost of the gifts that Santa left under the tree this year. One reason given for this increase was that more people see themselves as “pet parents,” rather than pet owners.

More often than I can remember in the past, this month a good number of students at my CARE presentations have been asking, “How do you stop buying unnecessary things?” Perhaps it is in part because of the pressures of buying gifts for the Holidays, with all of the sales and the advertising, which, as we all know, too often lead to impulse buying and overspending.

It is a good question, which unfortunately doesn’t have a simple answer. Like the answer to “how do I lose weight” is much more complex than “just eat less.”

I have thought a lot about the elements that go into a reasonable answer, so let me take a crack at it, knowing that it may not be a perfect, or even a complete, answer. It will, however, hopefully provide a lot to think about.

First. It is important to embrace the concept that “it is not about how much money you have, it is about how you manage the money that you do have.” That is not to say that, at times, working harder, working at something different, or finding an additional source of income may not be important, or even necessary, in order to meet your financial needs and goals. However, good money management and building good money habits can help you to control the expense part of your income and expense equation, which must, at a minimum, balance, in order to avoid being in unnecessary and/or unaffordable debt.

Second. For a number of reasons, I believe that it is also important to commit to avoiding debt as much as possible. Obviously, when you borrow money, you have to pay it back with interest, and as a consumer, that just adds to your expenses, and means that you are paying more for what you borrowed to do or have. Since you don’t make a profit as a consumer, like a business does, you have to have more income if you want to live within your means. Also, thinking that “debt is ok” makes it much easier to buy or do those “unnecessary things.” Last, who want the added stress of being in debt, especially if it is unaffordable debt? Remember eight out of the top 14 stressors in life are money-related.

Third, I also believe that it is necessary to have clear long-term and short-term financial goals, which you have thought carefully about, and have really bought into. Your commitment to achieving those goals will provide you with the very thing that you need to resist buying or doing those unnecessary things, when you realize that they may prevent you from achieving your goals. Of course it is important when you are looking at one of “those expenses,” that you actually stop and remind yourself of those goals.

Financial goals are almost infinite in number, and are very personal, but I believe that there are a few that everyone should have. They include having an adequate emergency savings account and having savings for those anticipated expenses that we have talked about in past columns, like to replace aging appliances, repair older vehicles, or, the one I use in the schools all the time, to pay for dental expenses when you get older and don’t have dental insurance. In addition, I believe that it is important for everyone to save so that they can retire with dignity, especially when it seems more and more clear that, although Social Security may be saved, it may not be as generous in the future as it is now.

The key is that if you are going to avoid debt as much as possible, and have money to meet at least these goals, that you will have to live “below” your means in that you cannot spend everything that you make.

In the next column, as we celebrate the New Year, we will take a look at some other goals that you may want to consider, and the need to have a financial plan, including a budget, to implement it and make it all work.

John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program.