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18 ways to save money during the holidays

Tired of starting the new year with a pile of debt? Shop smart, and you can enjoy the holidays without putting yourself in the poor house. Here are 18 tips to help you make the most of your time and money:

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1. Decide how much you can spend. "Most people go about it all wrong," says Ric Edelman, author of "Financial Security in Troubled Times." "The first thing they do is come up with a list of people [to buy for]."

Instead, Edelman recommends setting your holiday budget before you go near a store.

One big mistake? People overlook the little extras when they draft a budget. Include everything from postage for Christmas cards to holiday party favors and home decorations to the cost of boarding a pet if you're traveling.

2. Make a list and check it twice. Armed with your budget, take a cue from St. Nick by making a list of all the people you want to buy for. Then go over the list and decide how much you can spend on each, Edelman suggests. Don't have enough money to cover your holiday budget? Go through it again, and cut names or amounts. Once you settle on a dollar amount for each person, that's it. "If you can't afford a sweater, get something else," says Edelman. "Focus on the amount you'll spend, not what you'll buy."

For big families, develop a gift list with other relatives, advises Mark Gorkin, a licensed clinical social worker known as "The Stress Doc." "You shouldn't have to buy something for everyone," he says.

3. Pay cash. "If you know that you've had trouble in [years] past, do a cash-only Christmas," says Clark Howard, co-author of the book "Get Clark Smart: The Ultimate Guide for the Savvy Consumer" and host of a nationally syndicated consumer call-in show. His holiday advice: set a limit, take that money out of your credit union or bank, "and when that [money's] gone, it's over."

4. Think of credit cards as short-term loans. Ideally, you'll want to pay everything off immediately. Have a choice of cards? Always use the card that offers the lowest interest rate. A good idea is to track your credit card spending just as you would if you were writing a check. Remember: It's really easy in the flurry of the holiday spending to run around and not keep track.

5. Put yourself on your shopping list. It sounds selfish, but it's really smart. "There are things you would not have bought for yourself that you end up, on impulse, buying [for someone else.]," says Howard. The best antidote: give yourself a little splurge, too.

6. Allow enough time for all your holiday preparations. Who hasn't run out for a gift at the last minute and ended up paying top dollar? But whether you're shopping, baking or wrapping presents to send cross-country, budgeting your time can end up saving you tons of money.

 
 
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