Black Friday is right around the corner, and shoppers are already being primed by retailers for the kind of buying gluttony that makes eater's remorse look like a bloated post-Thanksgiving walk in the park.
In the same way that dieters count calories before they start gorging in order to avoid weight gain this time of year, the best way to avoid the accumulation of extra debt is to create a spending plan, a.k.a. a budget, and then stick to it.
While this may sound simple, it's not something that should exist in a nebulous way. You can't have a list in your head and engage in sensible spending unless you have an army of elves on your payroll. Make that list. Check it twice. And then forget who was naughty or nice: Spend what you can afford. Here are some more tips that can help protect your finances this holiday shopping season.
1. Carefully Consider Store Credit Cards
One way to stretch your spending power is to increase your available credit. Many retailers offer credit cards with zero interest for a certain period of time, instant approval, and occasionally a decent discount
Before you accept the offer or decide that you can manage more available credit while maintaining a utilization ratio under 10% (a best practice for maximizing your credit score), make sure you understand the terms of engagement. That zero-interest period offered in big type on the card application may morph into a high-interest loan before you know it, and with that, the likelihood increases exponentially that any discount you received for signing up will be lost to interest payments.
If you do elect to get a new credit card, just make sure you can manage your credit responsibly by keeping your debt levels low and making payments on time. (You can check on your finances by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
2. Note Deal Exclusions
It is not unusual to be mugged by your own expectations during the holiday season. This is especially the case when it comes to special offers and deep retailer discounts. Never forget that they were engineered by marketing pros to get you to the store.
What happens when you get there can often be an infuriatingly familiar tale of holiday shopping woe: The particular item that you want -- generally something that a lot of people want, and which sells briskly without the aid of the proffered discount -- is not eligible for the promotion, something you would have known had you been able to understand the auctioneer-speed exclusions read at the end of the 30-second ad spot or taken the time to read the print ad.
If you see a promotion this holiday season, if the must-have toy that cannot be found is supposedly available, or if a promotion has you thinking that you're going to get off easy financially on a particular gift purchase, it's a good idea to call ahead and make sure you're not hitting the shopper frustration zone.
Remember: If it seems too good to be true, it may well be.
3. Beware Gift Card Fraud
There's nothing worse than hitting 10 outlet stores on Black Friday and coming up empty for someone on your list. Gift cards can be a great way to solve your holiday shopping shortfalls. Who doesn't like store credit? But beware of the scams.
Fraudsters have been known to photograph the numbers on gift cards at a store and then call the customer service departments identified on the back of the cards to see if (and when) they have been activated, so they can drain them. If you give a card, you might want to tell the recipient that it's best to use it as soon as possible.
Avoid buying gift cards from a third party, since there are many counterfeiters out there and you cannot be sure that you are getting what you paid for. That said, the multiple retailer card displays that you encounter at supermarkets and pharmacy chains are generally a safe place to buy gift cards.
4. Research Store Promotions
The best way to navigate Black Friday deals is to master them before you go shopping. Thinking about applying for a store credit card? Do the research before you're at the checkout counter and facing down a 10-to-20% discount. If you know which retailers you are going to visit, go online and find out what promotions they have. Plan your day according to those promotions, since other shoppers will have done their homework as well, and the best deals will be where you encounter the longest lines if you don't get in line at the crack of dawn.
As with all things shopping-related, if you do the legwork before you actually hoof it to your local mall or outlet center, you will get the best bang for your buck. Make a plan and stick to it.
Bottom line: Anyone can get through the holiday season without suffering the personal finance version of seasonal weight gain, but you can't wing it.