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7 ways to save your green during the holidays

The average American will spend $791.10 this year in holiday gifts, food and decor, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation.

What's more, consumers also plan to spend an average of $99.22 each on gifts for themselves.

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If spending $890.32 for the family's holiday is too rich for your blood -- and don't forget, that's before you start adding credit-card interest to the total -- it's time to get smart about your shopping. Here is a merry bundle of ways to save your green during the upcoming holidays:

1. Try a nontraditional tree. Many families who celebrate Christmas end up arguing every year about the cost of their tree. Although evergreens are relatively inexpensive in certain parts of the country, such as the Northwest, trees can be budget-breakers in many other states.

In arid Utah, for instance, Christmas trees are generally shipped into the area from elsewhere. This year an 8-foot tree is expected to fetch up to $50, depending on the variety.

Craig Israelsen, a family finance teacher at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, has come up with a new way to beat the cost of Utah's Christmas trees: "Some years, our family's Christmas tree is a large new houseplant, such as a ficus, or an outdoor shrub that we will eventually transplant into our garden," he says.

If you live near a national forest, contact your local forestry office to see if they sell Christmas tree permits to the public. (Not all will, and those that do may offer a limited supply.) Though the permit will cost a few dollars, it will allow you to cut down a tree you can take home for free. Make sure to follow all the rules of the permit. You may be restricted to certain species, heights and designated areas.

Another option is a well-made artificial tree. Check local retailers or buy them online at sites such as Tree Classics or Christmas Trees Galore. They will cost hundreds of dollars more than ones you'd cut yourself, but you can use them again for years. If you're on the fence about going artificial, buy your tree on sale after the holidays, when they often can be snapped up for as much as 75 percent off the regular retail price.

2. Brave the post-Thanksgiving crowds. If you're not faint of heart, you can actually save money by shopping the Friday after Thanksgiving, says Ellie Kay, author of several money-saving books, including "The Debt Diet." Kay has bargain-hunted this way for years. "I often start at 5 a.m. and finish by 9 a.m., just in time for a nice cup of coffee," she says.

Kay suggests shopping strategically on that hectic day. "Plan your gifts in advance, and then read through the sales circulars on Thanksgiving so you're well-prepared," she says. "Carefully check store-opening times, which are often as early as 5 a.m., and watch for the fine print regarding popular items, such as 'until stock runs out' or 'available to first 100 customers.'"

Kay also suggests shopping with a bargain-minded buddy. That way, your pal can be at one end of a store shopping for certain limited-quantity items while you're across the store buying others.

3. Redeem your credit card rewards. If you carry a credit card that offers cash back or airline miles, consider redeeming your rewards and putting the money or miles toward Christmas gifts.

 
 
Next: Don't shop for yourself.
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