During a recent a four-hour trip to a local mall, I spent less than $4 at the peak of the holiday season. Other members of my family hit the sales and the shopping aisles with a bit of holiday fever. But for the most part, we stayed immune to the seasonal shopping bug with a mix of creativity, discipline and self indulgence. Here's the strategy:

Cash budget: Every member of my family received cash and a personal budget before walking into the mall. Debit, ATM and credit cards were off limits and that strategy created concrete shopping limits for the outing. With a cash-only budget, my children - teenage and tweenage - studied promotions and sales in several stores, and made thoughtful purchases. At the end of the day, the children carried fewer packages and more cash than I had expected.

Art and coffee breaks: Malls feature a variety of cultural activities and exhibits. For example, I spent time studying a small gallery of black and white photos in a far corner of the mall. I also walked past seasonal exhibits, concerts and other free entertainment. Finally, after purchasing a cup of flavored gourmet coffee for less than $4, I spent 30 minutes listening to live music, reading and people watching from a comfortable leather chair in one of several sitting areas.

Education: At the mall, Williams-Sonoma, a home specialty store, posted a schedule of free hour-long cooking lessons, and Origins - a cosmetics and skincare chain - offered free mini-facials for shoppers. For gadget lovers, there were free hands-on workshops at the Apple Retail Store. And at Teavana, a salesclerk provided complimentary cups of hot tea and brewing tips. Impressed, my husband purchased several ounces of exotic loose tea from the store.

Stairmaster: Walking clubs are popular in malls around the country. Three times a week, the Aventura Medical Center sponsors a free "walking club," at the Aventura Mall in the Miami area. The hour-long activity includes stretching exercises at the mall's Fountain Court. But you don't need to join a formal group to enjoy the benefits of mall exercise. Stairs, hallways and ramps provide opportunities for healthy exercise, and I enjoyed a brisk tour of the mall while the rest of my family shopped.

Sharon Harvey Rosenberg is the author of the "Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money" - a coming-of-age memoir about money - and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's "10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget," both available on Amazon.com.

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald.

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