smart spending

Put the brakes on holiday spending

Don't reach for credit

If you are buying big-ticket items, such as electronic equipment or furniture, watch for deals that aren't as great as they sound.

Some stores offer "zero-percent financing" for 12 months or so. Here's the catch: If you don't pay the entire bill by its due date, interest charges may accrue from the date you made the purchase.

"Statistically speaking, stores offer these deals because they'll make money on them," says Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, an organization that helps consumers who are in financial crisis.

Another deal to avoid is any offer to skip a credit card payment over the holidays. You'll end up paying much more in the long run.

Kids and gifts

Admittedly, it's next to impossible to totally tune out all the marketing messages that bombard kids at this time of year. However, you can mitigate their impact.

Start by minimizing exposure to media that can spur on a "greed fest," says Zalewski. Take catalogs to the recycling bin before you or your kids have a chance to browse through them. Mute television commercials when they come on, so your kids are less likely to become captive to their messages.

Be realistic when you tell your kids what you can afford, says Rhode. Most children are resilient and can handle not getting everything they want. Ask them to identify the items they really want and that are within your budget. If their holiday demands are out of control, it may be time for a larger discussion on appreciation and setting limits.

Other costs

Your budget should also include the not-so-incidental incidentals, such as entertainment, postage and travel costs. They all add up.

If you'll be traveling over the holiday, start looking for bargains now. The Internet can help you track down deals, says Rhode. One caution: If you're purchasing discount tickets that carry penalties for changing your plans, it might pay to invest in trip insurance.

When it comes to holiday cards, doing it yourself can pay off. Consider sending a letter on brightly colored paper. If you have some budding artists around, ask them to design a card that you can print or copy and send off. (First check prices for color copying, if that's necessary. The charges can eat up any savings.)

If you're more comfortable with store-bought cards, plan ahead for next year. Most stores slash prices as the holidays get closer.

Holiday get-togethers also are part of the fun. Keep them going, but trim costs. Instead of a fancy dinner, get together for desserts or brunch. Or, make popcorn and watch a holiday video. Also consider concerts and shows at local schools, houses of worship and community centers.

Sticking to it

Granted, staying within a budget isn't easy. Even the best intentions can go by the wayside with the onslaught of ads, catalogs and stores decked out with holiday presents and decorations.

To boost your chances of success, take your budget to the mall or keep it by your computer. Having a quick reminder of your goals can help you keep shopping under control. When you're done shopping, go home or turn off the computer so you don't succumb to impulse buys.

Spending wisely at the holidays requires thinking about what's really important to you. "Going overboard at the holidays is fine," says Ginita Wall, a CPA and CFP in San Diego.

"But remember the trade-off. The money might not be there for vacation next summer."