Gifts That Keep on Costing

'Tis the season to spend with folly.

Americans are expected to plunk down an average of $816 on holiday gifts this year, according to a new survey from Roper Starch and Intuit, a maker of financial software

And they will likely spend $100 more than they expected. But you can make sure the debt doesn't hang around longer than the tinsel.

Figure out what you have to spend - either from savings or what's left over after the November and December bills have been paid. Then "make a list of the names of the people you are going to buy for and determine how much you are willing to spend on each person," advises Cleveland financial planner Karen Spero. Stick to the list. It keeps you out of debt and away from impulse purchases.

If your list totals more than you have available, don't reach for the credit cards. Grab a pencil and cut back. It's not a hallmark of generosity to get yourself in trouble.

Dennis Filangeri, a financial planner in Metairie, La., actually recommends paying with a credit card - with the "proviso that when you get the bill at the end of the month, you pay it." He says many stores now offer cards with extended grace periods, allowing shoppers to wait as long as six months before paying. Again, pay it off just before the due date to avoid costly interest charges.

Or you can avoid the malls altogether. Shop with catalogs or on the Internet. "They're a lot more convenient than bucking the crowds," says longtime financial expert Marshall Loeb, and a way to avoid getting caught in the euphoria of the moment.

Of course, giving needn't mean shopping. "Homemade gifts probably express the sentiments of the season better than the store-bought ones," Mr. Filangeri says.

If you've already overspent, plan for next year. January bills will show how much you spent. Divide by 12; start saving.

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