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5 tips to steer clear of debt in holiday shopping

Black Friday deals are starting early this year, and that means more pressure to spend. As the holiday shopping season expands and retailers make impulse buys easier, via smartphone and otherwise, consumers have to be extra disciplined.

The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales will rise 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year. Shoppers are expected to spend an average $749.51 in November and December, with many shelling out much more. Unfortunately, many will take months to pay off the goodies they bought. Among the potential debt traps:

Some credit card issuers have mailed blank checks for their customers to use. Interest rates on these cash advances can run 20 percent or more.


Card issuers are attaching spending requirements to generous rewards and bonus offers, making you spend with their cards in order to qualify. That's sinking a much bigger hook into the consumer than in the past, when merchants offered peeks at their sales in exchange for Facebook ''likes.''

''Opening a new credit card just to get a deal is never a good idea,'' says Jeff Somogyi, a Dealnews.com editor. ''Getting into a new financial entanglement just to get a jump on Black Friday sales is probably an even worse idea.''

This doesn't mean you have to shun all holiday sales. But remember: Smart spending isn't all about finding the best deals. Some tips:

 Have a plan. Make a list of what items you hope to find and how much you intend to spend on each person. Stick to it! Start your shopping online, at least to compare prices and look for deals. Avoid impulse purchases. And don’t wait till the last minute to shop; it’s a sure prescription to spend more.

 Limit credit card use. If you must use it, put your charges on one credit card — the one with the lowest rate if you carry a balance. Remove all other cards from your purse or wallet. Don’t apply for store cards just to snag one-time discounts. Ideally, don’t charge a single item unless you can pay the next bill in full. At the least, set a target date to zero out any balance.

 Resist the bait. Card issuers are tempting consumers by offering no-
interest balance transfers, extra perks for meeting certain spending levels, and increased cash back in specified categories. ‘‘No deal is a good deal if you can’t afford it,’’ says the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

  Use layaway. Retailers have lowered or waived fees this year that shoppers pay to participate in these interest-free, pay-over-time programs. Debt-conscious consumers can snag gifts at attractive prices while not having to pay an extra fee just to avoid using credit cards.

 Be creative. Find it difficult to stick to a budget? Give gift cards and make something personal to go with them. Or give experiences instead of ‘‘stuff’’ — a shared hike or a special home-cooked meal. Or volunteer together at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or nursing home if your gift recipient doesn’t want more material items, suggests Pamela Yellen, a financial services consultant and personal finance author. The gifts people remember the most, as she points, are often free.

Dave Carpenter writes for the Associated Press.