It's 4 p.m. on New Year's Day, and reality is sinking in. You have to work tomorrow. It's cold out. Your diet was supposed to start this morning. And your holiday credit card bill will arrive soon.
Some post-holiday letdown might be inevitable, but there are ways to keep your credit cards from contributing to that gloom. Prevention starts around Thanksgiving -- when you avoid these holiday credit goofs.
It's the ribbon-bedecked elephant in the room, so let's get it out of the way first. A 2014 Accenture survey found that most people make a budget for holiday gift buying, and nearly half go right ahead and spend more anyway. Credit makes that so easy to do.
This year, be realistic when setting your budget, then take it seriously. Keep your gift spending tally in writing or on your phone, not in your head. If you don't think you can avoid charging purchases that you'll regret in the new year, go retro and buy your gifts with cash or a debit card.
2. Buy gifts that come with recurring payments you didn't budget for.
Teens want smartphones and other tech devices that often come with contracts. And that's fine, if you budget the whole cost of the plan into your gift. Don't tally a $200 phone as a $200 gift if your credit card is going to get charged $60 every month for service over the next two years -- that's really a $1,640 gift.
3. Charge gifts for your spouse.
Unless you are the only one who ever glances at the credit card bill, do not put that lovely diamond necklace or that set of golf clubs on your joint card. Nothing spoils the good feeling of a gift more than receiving a bill for it. Set aside cash for spousal gifts on the sly throughout the year, use a private PayPal account or just drop the spy versus spy routine and choose something nice together.
Whatever you do, don't be tempted to take a cash advance or use one of those checks that comes with your credit card bill to obscure your spending. Credit cards charge interest rates on advances that are 1 to 7 percent higher than your regular rate, according to CreditCards.com -- and they charge a fee on top of that. A better idea, if you must use a credit card for your spouse's gift, would be to buy a store gift card at the grocery store (your spouse will just think you're buying ingredients for Thanksgiving), and then use that to pay for the item.
4. Forget to make your December payment.
In the rush of holiday parties and planning, it's easy to let mail pile up. And if you pay by mail, service can be delayed this time of year by the influx of cards and packages. Send your December payment early so you can tick one to-do item off your list -- or face penalties and interest on top of the cost of gifts come January.
5. Pay your bill without looking at it.
This is particularly important now that so many people are doing their holiday shopping in November. When the bill comes, you must read every line -- even if it arrives just as you're busy getting the Christmas tree or wrapping gifts. Leave it until later, and you may miss overcharges, charges for items that never arrived, charges by credit card thieves or other problems.
6. Fail to safeguard your cards during the holiday rush.
There are a number of ways your credit cards are more vulnerable to identity thieves during the holidays: they're in and out of your wallet more, you're moving through crowded stores where thieves have easy pickings, you're carrying a lot of packages that might lead you to drop your card and you may be shopping online at sites you're not familiar with. You may be more likely to apply for a store card to get a discount, which means you'll be sharing your Social Security number and other information right there in public. You may be traveling, always a vulnerable time for theft.
Protect yourself by paying attention to how many credit cards you are carrying, reporting a missing card immediately, keeping your cards close to your body, watching out for snoopers with smartphone cameras when you scan your card or fill out an application, and checking your account regularly for suspicious charges -- even online in between statements.
Last year, Target experienced a major data breach during holiday shopping, making millions of customers vulnerable to fraud and identity theft. There may be nothing you can do to prevent such a heist, but if it happens this year at a store where you've shopped, you can help nip any fraud in the bud by being vigilant. Check your card activity daily, and follow any instructions that the compromised store sends you by email.
7. Forget about store cards or other cards you don't use regularly.
You may get your MasterCard bill in January and feel you did just fine on your spending -- until the first bill arrives for that new store card you applied for. Track all your spending as you go; don't rely on your credit card statements to keep track for you.
8. Overlook credit card-based discounts.
More and more, card companies are offering their customers coupon codes right on the statement or other opportunities to save money on things you might have purchased anyway. All the major card companies now have websites where members can sign up for special offers, like a $10 discount off a $70 purchase at a certain store. Taking a few minutes to review these offers can result in big savings.
Greg Go is the co-founder of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card education blog, where you can find tips on how to find the best travel credit cards.
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