With less than a week to go before Christmas, you've likely completed the greatest bulk of your shopping. I actually finished mine just about the first week of December, so I can sit back and watch with detached amusement the people running hither and yon to either pick up last-minute gifts or -- gasp! -- begin to shop in earnest.

As a shareholder in a few retailers, I've been watching the parking lots of the local malls with some interest to see whether I could read the chicken entrails and divine whether this was going to be a good quarter for my holdings. There was some consternation at the beginning when so-called "Black Friday" -- the day after Thanksgiving that marks the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping period that theoretically puts retailers into the black -- seemed more of a gauzy charcoal color, as there were still plenty of parking spaces available right next to store entrances.

I went to my local big box retailers -- in my neighborhood, there's a Costco (NASDAQ:COST), a Target (NYSE:TGT), a Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), and three Home Depots (NYSE:HD) all within a few minutes drive of each other -- and found the situation the same as at the mall: easy parking, open aisles, and available registers. I was not hopeful.

Then a friend of mine put me at ease. After talking with her about gifts to buy, how much to spend, and not going into debt for the season, she told me something that made me realize everything was going to be OK. I finally understood that once again the malls would be full, the easy parking spaces would be gone, and the cash registers would be ringing. She said:

"Just because I can't afford something doesn't mean I can't have it."

Think about that statement for a moment and you'll understand why my fears for a weak quarter have subsided. It also sums up for us why we have become a nation of debtors.

According to the Federal Reserve, consumer debt recently reached $2.2 trillion, more than double what it was a decade ago. It crossed the $1 trillion threshold for the first time in 1994. The average size of a credit card bill in the United States is about $9,000, according to the industry, and if you exclude those Foolish types who pay their balances in full every month, the average balance is really closer to $13,000. Of the $400 billion that is estimated to be spent on Christmas this year, $120 billion will be paid for via credit card.

As Selena Maranjian wrote about the subject earlier this year, consumers paid more than $24 billion in credit card fees last year, up 18% over the year before. It's probably pretty certain that the numbers for 2005 will surpass those for this year. While we might want to blame credit card issuers such as MBNA (NYSE:KRB) and Capital One Financial (NYSE:COF) for the situation, it really takes two willing partners to explain why debt, not to mention personal bankruptcy, is at an all-time high.

Once again: "Just because I can't afford something doesn't mean I can't have it."

Sentiments like that reveal why we're a nation of debtors. The concepts of deferred gratification, rainy days, emergency funds, and simply living below your means have little meaning in our society.

As Fools, though, let's ensure that we don't fall into the same debt trap as my friend. If you can't afford something, then it means precisely that you can't have it. At least not right away. That's why there are savings accounts and money market funds. Heck, even the old standby cookie jar is better than running up your credit card debt to levels you can't pay.

If you're one of those who has been waiting for this last week before Christmas to start your holiday shopping, don't let the pressure of finding a gift cause you to blow your budget. You have a budget, right? Here are a few tips to help keep you from waking up on Dec. 26 with a severe case of holiday debt.

  • Decide how much you can afford to spend and keep to it.

  • With your budget defined, decide how much you're going to spend on each person. When you reach that total, don't spend any more.

  • Not everyone needs to get a gift. A holiday card suffices for most people who are not family or very close friends.

  • Pay with cash instead of credit cards. When you run out of money, you're done shopping.

  • Carry mistletoe in your pocket, and scope out as many doorways as you can find. Hey, you never know!

The lure of the finer things in life is often hard to resist. Whether it's the bling relentlessly tossed in our faces through the media or that we simply want to do more for those we care about or to make a positive change in the world (check out our five Foolanthropy charities if you haven't already), we need not become slaves to the debt we've accumulated. Remember: If you can't afford it, you can't have it.

Prepare for next year's Christmas now by checking out these related Foolish areas:

Costco is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Home Depot is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey owns shares of Wal-Mart but does not own any of the other stocks mentioned in this article. You can view his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.