The economy hasn't recovered and the biggest shopping time of year is here. What's a consumer - who's trying to obey personal-finance expert Suze Orman while trying to get the kids exactly what they want - to do?
Planning is crucial: If you walk into a store with a list in mind, you're less likely to be swayed by all the swanky sales and glitzy ads, experts say.
When it comes to the post-Thanksgiving Day shopping frenzy, "a lot of what draws people is the price deals," said Heather Clary, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau of Central and Eastern Kentucky. "Even though you're excited about the sales, have a budget and stick to it. It's trite, but it's true."
Remember, that spectacular bargain might look a lot less attractive if you have to carry it on your credit card for the next six months.
Clary suggested that if you haven't already done it, this might be the year to change your holiday shopping traditions. Some families just give gifts to the children, draw names, set a price limit, have a theme, or pool everyone's money and give it to a charity.
"Trim down your gift list," Clary said. Sit down and talk it over with the rest of the family. "Some people may be glad you brought it up."
And try to keep the emotion out of the mix.
"Be conscientious, creative and in control," Clary said. "It's easy to get carried away when you're in the mall with all the decorations and the music."
Here is some more advice from two local experts: Joanne Bankston, a state specialist for family economics and management at Kentucky State University and the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, and Deborah Morris, who writes the Herald-Leader's weekly Fru-Gal column.
Look at the big picture. The amount you spend might vary depending on family values; however, it is unwise to spend more than 10 percent of your yearly income for holiday expenses.
Use credit wisely. If you use credit cards for holiday shopping, consider several factors to avoid going too far into debt. Charge only an amount that you can safely repay in a few months. If you have multiple credit cards, put charges only on one card.
Be a smart shopper. Shop early. Practice wise consumer strategies. Comparison shop. Compare price, quality and warranties. Watch for sales. Plan your shopping by making a list, checking ads in newspapers and flyers, and shopping at stores that are close to one another to save time and energy.
Give gifts that don't always have the biggest price tag. Using your talent and skill to create gifts from your sewing room, craft corner, kitchen or garden adds a special touch of love. A gift of time is precious.
Assess your greeting-card list. Look for ways to prune your list. Send cards only to out-of-town family and friends you are not likely to see during the holidays. Make your own greeting cards using blank cards and special stencils and stamps.
Don't forget to decorate. The best time to buy holiday decorations is after the holiday. Or better yet, look for ways to make decorations or use what you already have. Properly stored decorations can be used from year to year.
Be creative when entertaining. Consider co-hosting an event with another family member or co-worker to consolidate time, effort, and expense. For special events, evaluate the need for a meal. Consider appetizers or snacks instead. Also, consider a potluck dinner as opposed to a lavish buffet.
Try to trim travel costs. Shop early for the best airfares.
Plan charitable donations. Remembering the less fortunate is an important part of many holidays. Some families donate to charities on behalf of family members rather than buy gifts for one another.
Make a holiday budget now. If you have monitored your spending all year, don't blow it during the holidays. Work out simple ways to follow your budget. Using coupons, rebates and sales can help. For example, make gift baskets with all the free stuff you can get from rebate programs at CVS, Rite-Aid and Walgreens. Get cash back on participating Hasbro games at Toys R Us. Use coupons on top of rebate programs to get double savings. Coupons.com and www.hasbro.com offer toy coupons.
Don't buy anything unless it's on sale. Stores are offering many great deals this season. Compare prices by using the store flyers in Sunday's paper. Wal-Mart and Target will match the sale price of any item that is advertised in a sale flyer. When ordering online always check for shopping codes to make your deal even better. Check out www.mycoupons.com.
Adhere to old-time values. Kmart and Sears offer layaway. Reserve gifts for everyone on your list and make it easy on your budget. It's one way to avoid using credit cards.
Be creative. Help your kids make gifts for loved ones. Go to the library and check out holiday movies and music for a family movie night. Put together a picnic with hot chocolate and enjoy Southern Lights at the Horse Park, or take a stroll downtown, enjoying the decorations.
Save on holiday meals. If couponing is still confusing, start by using clipless coupons at Kroger. Fall Savings, Cell Fire, P&G eSaver and Shortcuts will load coupons right on your savings card. When you are shopping at the store, your card will automatically deduct your savings at checkout. Go to www.fallsavings.com, www.shortcuts.com, www.pgesaver.com or www.cellfire.com
Start planning for next Christmas. After-Christmas sales are a great time to get great holiday gifts for as much as 90 percent off. It is worth it to spend a little money after the holiday to save money for your next holiday season.
(c) 2009, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.