How wise doctors can save money this holiday season

By Physician Sense
Published November 12, 2020

Key Takeaways

Halloween is over. Election day has (sort of) passed. Historically, that means we’re heading into the frenetic, calorically dense, and costly stretch of time known as the holiday season. But much like nearly all aspects of life in 2020, this holiday season likely will be like no other. And it’s because of — you guessed it — the pandemic.

While social distancing may make holiday gatherings look different this year, celebrating the holidays likely will be just as expensive. This may prove to be a challenge for many physicians, who have lost revenue from canceled procedures and low patient volume.

The American Hospital Association estimates that hospitals lost $200 billion from March to June 2020 alone. That caused furloughs and layoffs for many healthcare workers, including physicians. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, unemployment in healthcare went from 2.8% in March to 10.4% in April. It has since fallen to 4.5%.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, physicians would do well to save some money this holiday season. Here are some strategies.

Plan wisely

Budgeting is personal finance bedrock. If you don’t have a household budget, build one. If you already have one, you should include a holiday line item for November, December, and January. Your projection should cover the cost of gifts (more on gifts later), decorations, food, and travel. Give yourself a bit of a cushion for unforeseen expenses.

Creating a holiday budget line item has several advantages. One, if you go through the effort of making a budget, you’re more likely to stick to it. Two, it prevents you from carrying credit card debt into the new year. And three, it helps manage expectations (your own, and your family’s).

If you often find yourself hosting during the holidays, and it’s been a bit of a down year in your practice, the pandemic gives you built-in justification not to. That’s budget savings right off the top. However, if you must host and you do so safely and socially distanced, go with a potluck to save on food and drink costs.

On the travel front, it seems reasonable to expect lower travel volume this holiday season. According to a recent report, only 39% of Americans say they’ll travel during the holidays. Twenty-one percent said they do not plan to travel, though they would under normal circumstances. Among those planning to travel, 50% say they’ll fly during Thanksgiving and 75% say they’ll fly during the winter holidays.

Whether people should travel if they can avoid it is another question. According to a recent JAMA Patient Page report, “Despite substantial numbers of travelers, the number of suspected and confirmed cases of in-flight COVID-19 transmission between passengers around the world appears small (approximately 42 in total).”

However, contrast that to the findings of an Emerging Infectious Diseases study, which concluded that “risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights is real and has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class-like settings with spacious seating arrangements well beyond the established distance used to define close contact on airplanes.”

If you must travel, it’s likely you’ll save some cash. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that year-over-year, domestic U.S. airfares declined 7.8% in the second quarter. Lower demand has driven down prices. Only 11.5 million people flew in the second quarter. Compare that 87.2 million who flew in the second quarter of 2019. (We’ve got our annual holiday travel survival guide coming later this month.)

Gift wisely

You’ve made your budget. Now it’s time to create another document. Thrifty gifting starts with creating a shopping list. As you create this list, ask yourself who must receive a gift this year. Spouse? Check. Children under the age of, say, 30? Check. Mom and Dad? Probably. Aunt’s, uncles, and grown nieces and nephews? Maybe not.

In these uncertain economic times, making no-gift contracts with your family can be a major cost-saver, and remove much of the consternation that comes from relatives who tend to be chintzy. If banning gifts is out of the question, consider a gift exchange, such as a secret Santa or a white elephant. You can even set price limits for both.

You can also get unconventional with your gifting. Let’s say money’s tight, but you have some extra time on your hands. Maybe a gift to one of your colleagues is watching their kids for a night. Perhaps you make a few meals for your parents. Hand-made gifts, such as needlework, arts, and crafts, are also heartfelt possibilities. Perhaps instead of your usual monetary gift to local charities, you give them a few hours of volunteer work.

Spend wisely

For thrifty doctors, spending wisely is where the rubber meets the road. You’ve created your budget, and determined your gifting strategy and price limits. Now, it’s time to exercise some restraint and self-control.

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