Last year, Americans spent more than $50 billion during the "Black Friday" shopping event that runs from Thanksgiving through the end of the holiday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation.

It's also a time when customers can overspend, pay more than they should, or allow the general exuberance of the season to lead to a bad decision. Last year, there were 248.7 million shoppers who were in stores and online over Thanksgiving weekend, NRF reported, so the number of people who can make bad financial choices is huge.

Still, Black Friday represents a chance to save some money if you make smart choices and are a disciplined shopper.  

Have (and stick to) a budget
While low prices and the pressures of the holiday season make people want to shop, it's important to only spend the money you actually have. That means sticking to a Black Friday/holiday budget, and in some cases, it might mean you can't spend anything. It might be tempting to buy items using credit because the prices are so low. But, with average credit card rates standing at 13.02% for fixed and 15.72% for variable rate cards, according to Bankrate, the money saved by paying less disappears quickly if you don't pay off your balance.

In fact, the $407 the average consumer spent last year, according to the NRF, will take two years and nine months to pay off if a customer makes the minimum payment of $16.28 (assuming a 14% interest rate), when calculated on Bankrate's calculator. That's $84.14 in total interest paid, and the numbers get predictably worse as spending goes up. Financing a necessity like a home, a car, or a major appliance may be a necessary evil, but using credit cards to pay for a new TV or Xbox can quickly put you into a financial hole.  

Research whether a deal is really a deal
Just because a product is advertised in a Black Friday circular does not mean it's actually a special deal, or one that hasn't been offered at other times during the year. A study conducted by NerdWallet showed that "many of the exact same discount prices are offered during sales throughout the year." 

The consumer finance website also found that 93% of 2014 Black Friday ads contain at least one item at the exact same price it was sold at on Black Friday 2013. Essentially you're getting last year's model at the same price. That's OK if you're buying a hammer, but much less acceptable for electronics.

"When you walk into a store on Black Friday, you can't have the mind-set that everything you see will be a good deal," NerdWallet Analyst Matthew Ong said. "Sure, there are a handful of impressive Black Friday deals this year, but many big-name retailers are essentially serving up the same products at the same prices year after year."

One example of a deal not being quite as good as advertised is Kmart advertising a Craftsman 2-1/4-ton floor jack with stands for $49.99 for its Black Friday sale. Even though the ad, which NerdWallet shows, says the item is selling for its "lowest price ever," it was also advertised at that price earlier this year, so it may be the lowest price ever, but the deal is not unique.

The other trick to watch out for that makes deals not as good as they appear as retailers promote savings based on manufacturer's suggested retail prices they never used in the first place. Consumer Reports detailed how this works in an article comparing Walmart (NYSE:WMT) and Best Buy's (NYSE:BBY) holiday TV offerings.

Among the deals with the biggest savings is the $1,500 Sony XBR-55X850B; it's hard not to be impressed by a UHD being offered at what Best Buy claims is half its current price. But we see it at several places now -- including Best Buy itself -- for $1,800, so the sale price is really about a $300 savings. And that $900 price cut on Samsung's UN55HU7250FXZA curved UHD TV, sale priced at $1,300? It's available now for $1,300 to $1,500 at a few retailers, including -- yes -- Best Buy. And while the actual $500 savings on Sharp's 70-inch LC-70TQ15U smart LED/LCD TV (its Black Friday price of $1,800 compared to $2,300 currently at several retailers) is nothing to sneeze at, it's half the claimed $1,000 savings.  

You're still saving money, but not nearly as much as promised.

Best Buy

Best Buy will have lots of deals this Black Friday, but they may not all be as good as they appear. 

Be willing to plan and/or wait
While Black Friday has the hype, it's not always the best day to shop. Radio host and financial guru Clark Howard shared an infographic on his website that broke down the best days to buy various items, and Black Friday did not win for any of them. The chart, built by Savings.com, was "based on proprietary from 2009-2013, including more than 1.5 million deals from 25,000 retailers," as well as "insights from Savings.com retail experts." It broke down the best shopping days as follows:

  • Electronics: November 1 (though the Black Friday period was a runner-up)
  • Toys: November 26 (the day before Thanksgiving)
  • Apparel: December 1 (Cyber Monday)
  • Gifts/Novelties: December 15
The other little-promoted secret is that as the season moves on, retailers get more and more desperate to move merchandise. If sales are lagging, chains have been known to cut prices to avoid being stuck with too much inventory after the holiday ends. Even successful stores may end up with too many of a certain item, which can lead to discounts as Christmas looms closer.
 
Be smart  
Getting the best deals means being disciplined, planning, and being willing to walk away. A new gizmo is not worth years of credit card debt, and fighting through a crowd to secure a bargain may not even be necessary in many cases. It's important to know what you're buying and understand when you're actually saving money and when you're being swept up in the euphoria of the season. 

Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.