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Beware triggers of compulsive holiday shopping

You don't need to have a shopping addiction to overspend during the season of "All I Want for Christmas Is More."

You don't need to have a shopping addiction to overspend during the season of "All I Want for Christmas Is More."

Triggers encouraging you to buy more and save more are everywhere.

But if you want to hold on to some of your cash, it can help to consider if you're about to get trapped in a compulsive shopping binge. Here are some signs of trouble ahead:

Flash sales/specials. Do you walk - or maybe click - like a zombie toward these?

People who sign up for texts and emails from certain online retail sites complain of being tempted daily, or even a few times a day, by all sorts of "limited-time" specials, according to Terrence Daryl Shulman, author of Bought Out and $pent! and a counselor of compulsive shoppers.

The time limit creates a sense of urgency and a shopper's rush. Shulman said he's had a number of clients say the alerts contributed to overspending.

"They're like crack, and they [the affected shoppers] often have to unsubscribe to them," Shulman said.

Traditional retailers are creating that limited-time feel with their sales, too. Kmart recently brought back its Bluelight Specials, which run in every store, every day, and are offered at, too.

The buzz of buying. "Some people really get such an adrenaline rush that it can overtake them," Shulman says. Some studies indicate that about 6 percent of the population deals with compulsive spending, he said.

How do you stop spending way too much on gifts or having way too many people on your gift list?

"It would be great if you could tell people the truth," Shulman said.

A variety of legitimate reasons exist for slamming the brakes on gift buying: job loss; loss of overtime pay; concerns about a limited retirement plan or a small amount of college savings. You might be embarrassed to admit troubles with money, but it's not all that unusual for friends to say they'd like to limit holiday spending or to cut back. It happens more often than you would think.

No-focus spending. One way to keep a clear head through Cyber Monday and on until New Year's is to actually sit down and decide how much you'll spend in total for the holidays. Do you want to spend $400 or $700 on all the gifts, dinners, holiday outfits, baked goods, parties, and donations?

"It's much more than who is on your Christmas list," said Katie Bossler, a financial counselor for GreenPath Debt Solutions.

Bossler, 35, said her family turned to the Secret Santa idea maybe six years ago, when some family members dealt with layoffs. The limit is $25.

She has creatively bought coffee, movie tickets, books, bottles of wine, even special steaks from the butcher as gifts. (You keep the meat frozen and then put it in the gift bag right before the exchange, she said.)

The idea is to buy something "very small but sweet."

Bossler targets spending $300 on everything for the season, plus cash tips to people in her everyday life who help her.

You might not be running up big credit-card debt, but you could still be spending more than you need to, she said. Ask yourself: "Are you using savings that's earmarked for something else?"

One way to focus your spending is to play this game: cash only.

Take only cash with you on your shopping trips. Or, if you want to spend only $40 on each gift on a given list, take an envelope, mark it with one name and stuff $40 in that envelope. Then spend only that amount on gifts for that person.

Or you might put a set amount of money on gift cards that you'll buy before you head to the store, then use to buy gifts. The idea is to find a way to control impulse spending.

"You can't overspend cash, but you can definitely overcharge a credit card," Bossler said.

And remember: If you have to reach a shopping limit to get free delivery, it isn't really free.

Consider shopping online options that allow for in-store pickup to avoid shipping costs.