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Q&A: My year-end bonus covers our holiday shopping. What if I don't receive one this year?

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Welcome back, TJA readers! It’s Doug at the keyboard. Welcome to the official start of the holiday spending season.


Every December, I receive a bonus that our family somewhat relies on to fund our holiday shopping and gift giving. But there were layoffs at my company this year, and I’m hearing rumblings that the numbers might fall much flatter than usual. What if I don’t receive a bonus at all?  How can I prepare us for what might be a tighter holiday season without disappointing anyone?


This was an interesting year for the economy. Nearly every guru warned of a 2023 recession, but with less than a month to go, I think it’s safe to say that their predictions were a bust. Yet, the vibes still aren’t good. Corporations are still reconciling their post-pandemic real estate portfolios with the realities of their workforce and are watching their bottom lines as they wrestle with inflation on top of it all. I can’t blame you or anyone for expressing concerns over year-end bonuses. 

Holiday spending isn’t the only reason to be concerned over holiday bonuses, but let’s be real: it’s a thing. Our consumer-based society has made it next to impossible to not spend more money this time of year. Brands and retailers have turned the Black Friday phenomenon into a two-month spending frenzy, and even if you’d like to opt out, I wish you luck, because your partner (and if applicable, your kids) will have something else to say about it. 

So in the holiday spirit of merging expectations with reality, let's address the issue head on.

What are the perceived reasons for why your bonus will come up short? How legitimate are those rumblings–is it just Paranoid Tony’s standard talk around the microwave? Or did your company go through a significant round of layoffs this fall? I wouldn’t smash the panic button without a manager expressly telling you to lower your expectations this year. There are better ways to spend your time and energy than playing out the what ifs, like focusing on what you can control. 

Most financial advisors won’t plan or budget around bonuses. Even if a large portion of someone’s compensation is wrapped up in discretionary incentives, I almost always have to view that money as a windfall and cannot rely on it to analyze a client’s cash flow. That’s the official answer, but I’m also an actual person. It would be unrealistic to think that people aren’t mentally or legitimately relying on their bonuses for additional spending or saving goals.  

A great way to offset any reliance on your year-end bonus is to actually budget around spending for the holidays on an annual basis. In other words, don’t be caught by surprise by your December bills when you can account for them all year in advance. Spending runs hot and cold depending on the seasons; typically, summer vacations and the holiday time account for our highest expenditures. You can consciously spend less money during the “lay low” months to cover the costs of additional fun during the fun months. 

But okay, you didn’t do that this year and are here right now. Another option is to try shopping outside of a typical retail setting. We love looking for deals on online marketplaces like eBay, Poshmark, Facebook, and Swappa, the last of which is especially good for high-end electronic devices and Apple products. Not everything needs to be brand new, and the discounts can be significant if you’re willing to spend the time exploring online. By the way, these platforms are also great for selling your old gear too. There’s no shame in flipping an old phone or laptop to put some extra bucks in your pocket. Every year, I post a slew of previously loved devices and reinvest the proceeds into our new ones. Plus, it justifies all the Apple boxes I’ve been hoarding in the guest room closest. Take that, Heather!

Finally, do not take on credit card debt to fund your holiday cheer. I repeat: no tap-ey, no swipe-y. Starting a new year with new consumer debt hanging over your head should be a nonstarter. I can’t think of anything more demotivating for 2024 than chasing a 20-plus percent interest rate on a credit card balance. There are few gifts better than making sure that you’re not putting your family in harm's way financially, even if that means slight disappointment in the gift department. 

Not receiving the bonus you want is unfortunate, but it shouldn’t ruin your holidays. Instead of overextending or placing yourself in a tough financial position, dive into the details of your current and future spending to see what bandwidth you have to work with. Getting creative might mean you don’t have to adjust as many expectations as you thought. But in any case, spending time with the people you love is the greatest gift of all. 

Do you have a question for our Q&As? Let us know: [email protected].


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The content shared in The Joint Account does not constitute financial, legal, or any other professional advice. Readers should consult with their respective professionals for specific advice tailored to their situation.