Ready? Set! Shop!

Not an evening newscast goes by without footage of frenzied, flush-faced shoppers burdened by bags weighing more than their extended family.

The scene might make you chuckle -- if you could get over the fact that the ladies in line behind the field reporter on TV were getting all the good stuff and that even if you left now all the good parking spots are already taken.

Don't worry: It's not too late to pull off an organized, meaningful, and financially responsible holiday. It's time for tinsel triage.

Step 1. Revisit last year's expenses. Maybe you didn't keep track of last year's holiday spending. But your lender sure did. Dig up last year's credit card statements for a horrifyingly accurate account of the December damage. You can do one of two things now: Challenge yourself to spend less, or challenge yourself to spend no more than you did. Ignore the shoppers on TV who say they feel good about the economy and appear to be bolstering it single-handedly.

Step 2. Make a list of giftees: Listing your lucky giftees and even a few ideas (stocks, anyone?) on what to get them will keep you from creating a logjam at the mall. (And for that, all of us last-minute shoppers thank you.)

Step 3. Pick a spending target -- and stick to it: Next to each person's name, write a target dollar figure. (See your credit card statement for some spending guidelines.) Pick a range, and make it reasonable. Voila -- your holiday scorecard. If you are facing financial hardships that you weren't last year, make sure to aim low.

Step 4. Don't dawdle. Malls are many a budgeter's downfall. 'Tis the season for temptation. Instead of focusing on the merchandise not on your list, focus on the teeming crowds you'll have to wade through to get to it. If it's not on your list, leave it. Even better is to avoid the bricks-and-mortar stores altogether and shop online. Gift wrapping. Card. Shipping. Click. Click. Click. Done. Done. And done.

Step5. Get something back. Go ahead and be a little bit selfish. Use one credit card for all holiday purchases -- and rack up the miles, cash back, or whatever reward comes with your plastic. (This recommendation is only for those who pay off their balances in full each month.) Not only will you have a record of what you spent for next year but also you'll actually get something back.

Step 6. Set a deadline. The holidays are really about being with the ones you love. It's hard to play board games with the kids or trim the tree when you're standing in line on Dec. 24. Set a firm deadline for your shopping, wrapping, shipping, and even housecleaning. You'll be a hero to your family if everything's done two weeks before the big day.


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