It's a holiday season tradition that you don't want to observe. Many consumers spend more than they can afford, often racking up huge credit card balances.
But there's no need to exit the season of giving in worse financial shape than when it began. That's a lesson Suki Eleuterio learned after spending recent years stretching her finances to buy holiday gifts.
"I found myself just swamped in debt and trying to pay off bills from last Christmas and the Christmas before," said Eleuterio, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The marketing and public relations executive resolved this year to control spending, an effort that has her on track to pay off $10,000 in credit card and student loan debt by year's end. She's also tackling holiday gift giving differently than in years past.
Eleuterio, 30, plans to spend about one quarter of the $300 to $400 she shelled out last year on gifts. And she's avoiding credit cards.
"If I can't afford to pay for it right now then I won't buy it," she said.
Here are some tips for managing your holiday season spending:
1. DRAW UP A BUDGET
Santa makes his list and checks it twice. More holiday season shoppers should be as thorough.
Establish a budget that lays out how much you plan to spend on each person on your list. Then stick to it.
"That way you're not walking around the mall with a credit card with a $20,000 limit, window shopping, with no plan, no strategy and no discipline," said John Ulzheimer, of Credit Sesame, a credit management website.
He also suggests capping your gift budget at a level that won't jeopardize your other financial obligations.
"It's almost like going to Las Vegas," Ulzheimer said. "Take only the money that you're comfortable losing."
2. MARRIED? SET LIMITS TOGETHER
More than half of married couples said they have paid with cash to cover up large purchases, and more than one in 10 married individuals has taken out a credit card in their own name to hide spending from their spouse, according to a survey released last month by McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union.
That's potentially bad news for those couples' finances, if not their marriage.
The trend is a symptom of the pressure many couples feel to impress their significant others, said Shawn Gilfedder, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union.
It also reflects how many people don't plan or communicate well when it comes to financial matters.
He recommends using online applications like Mint.com or FinanceWorks.com, which enable couples to share their financial information at a glance.