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Holiday shopping? Stay sane

Between now and Jan. 1, hordes of us are expected to be out scouting the malls and neighborhood boutiques or hovering at our computers to shop online.

Between now and Jan. 1, hordes of us are expected to be out scouting the malls and neighborhood boutiques or hovering at our computers to shop online.

After several years of recession-induced belt-tightening, consumers may be loosening up a bit this holiday.

"The past couple years, people have been in a self-protection mode . . . [and] pulled back on their credit-card use, but I think there will be a bit of rebound," said Erica Sandberg, editor of in San Francisco.

Sandberg and other money-management experts caution against splurging on holiday spending. "Always remember what it felt like to be in debt."

Here's more help:

Don't blow the budget. Before leaving home, make a list of everyone you're shopping for and the amount you plan to spend.

"Having a gift budget really helps keep spending on track and prevents a situation where emotion takes over," Ted Beck, president and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education, said in a statement.

One tip to keep your holiday spending sane: Carry cash. When it's gone, you know you're done shopping.

Mind the plastic. If paying with plastic, designate one card for holiday spending. If you spread your purchases across too many credit cards, for instance, it may feel as if you're charging less, but you could wind up overspending and getting stuck with too much in fees and interest charges.

"Remove all unnecessary cards from your wallet," said Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. It "will not only help you stay within your budget, but will also lessen the damage in case of loss or theft."

Don't charge more than 60 percent of your available credit line, Sandberg said. If your credit limit is $10,000, keep your spending to $6,000. And be sure you can pay it off within one to two months.

When shopping, be wary of tempting credit-card offers at the cash register.

"Stick to your plan: If you didn't want or need that credit card before you walked into the store, don't get talked into it," Sandberg said. "Politely smile and say 'I don't need it.' "

Lay it away - with care. Layaway plans are getting a revival, as more retailers let you set aside merchandise to be picked up once you've completed a series of installment payments. Typically, layaway plans require a deposit of 10 percent to 20 percent of the purchase price and a service fee of at least $5.

While it can be easier on the wallet, the Better Business Bureau reminds consumers to be wary. Before you put down any money, be sure you understand the terms: How much are the fees? When are payments due? What happens if you change your mind? What if the item goes on sale after you've set up a layaway plan?

Online shopping - safely. Whether you're using a PC, Mac or smartphone, the holidays can be a minefield of online cybercrime.

In its "12 Scams of Christmas," the computer-security software firm McAfee warns consumers of some common scams:

Holiday screensavers, ringtones, and e-cards may sound festive but harbor malicious viruses or malware. In doubt? Don't download.

The season's "must-have" gifts often pop up on rogue websites, even when the merchandise isn't available.

Holiday "phishing" scams, using phony e-mail or social-media posts, try to dupe you into disclosing financial or personal data. Among recent examples: phony Facebook contests and offers.

"Cyberscammers know that most people are busy around the holidays so they tailor their e-mails and social messages with holiday themes in the hopes of tricking recipients into revealing personal information," said Gary Davis, McAfee's director of global consumer product marketing.