Boulder, Colo. -- The holiday shopping frenzy begins in earnest this weekend, and with more than $218 billion in credit card debt outstanding in the United States, a few pointers may be in order to help get you through the season with your budget intact.
It's easy to overspend; most of us do without even realizing it. The wisest strategy, credit experts say, is to draw up and stick to a gift budget.
The key is to spend more time planning your purchases so you'll spend less money, said Frances Smith, public affairs director for the American Financial Services Association. In other words, make a list, and check it twice.
Start shopping early. Becky Cutler, education director for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Denver, said give yourself ample time, and use the phone to do some of the legwork. Also, take advantage of markdowns, and use special credit offers judiciously.
But, warns Elgie Holstein of Bankcard Holders of America, beware of deferred-payment purchase plans, skip-payment credit cards and unrequested increases in credit lines.
"The holidays always bring offers of buy now, pay later. In most cases, interest will be adding up during the deferred payment period," he said. And even if it is payment-and-interest-free for up to five months in some cases this year, you still are obligating yourself to pay for it eventually.
"In uncertain economic times, it's wise to say no to new offers of credit, including higher limits on credit cards," Mr. Holstein says.
He also suggests using a low-interest-rate Visa, MasterCard or American Express card in department stores, if they accept them, since most bank cards carry an interest rate that is below that offered by retailers.
That's true even now, when the average bank card rate is still around 18.6 percent. Many retailers charge 20 percent or more interest on their cards.
Also, avoid last-minute shopping for "a little something" to give to someone, Ms. Smith advises. The temptation is to spend too much on something useless. And be careful of spur-of-the-moment purchases that aren't in your budget; those little extras add a lot to your total, she said.
Keep a running tally of the costs of all of your gifts so you can compare the actual amount to the amount budgeted.
Save all the receipts, and keep them in one place. If you have to exchange or return an item, this will make it easier, Ms. Smith said.
There are also some buying strategies you should consider.
You may find you can bargain with retailers, even in department stores, said Judy Kent, manager of media relations for American Financial Services, based in Washington.
"These are changing times, and consumers are more savvy than they used to be. They know there's no need to pay full price for most things anymore," she said. So, ask for a better price. The worst that can happen is the merchant will say no, and you can always take your business elsewhere.
And, if you are using a bank card, refuse to pay the extra fees some stores try to charge, Mr. Holstein says. Merchants sometimes impose surcharges -- an extra amount tacked on because you are paying with a credit card -- for using Visa, MasterCard or American Express.
Merchants are trying to pass on their costs of using the credit card system, Mr. Holstein says. Surcharges used to be banned nationwide and are now specifically out lawed in 10 states.
But the most important thing is that the credit card companies themselves do not allow merchants to impose surcharges on their cardholders, he said. If it happens, report the merchant to the credit card issuer.
Also, Mr. Holstein said, "just say no" if merchants try to bully you into spending a minimum amount just for the privilege of charging it on your bank card.
And, for your safety and protection, don't allow merchants to record your credit card number when paying by check. And don't give out your phone number, driver's license or any other personal information when paying for your purchases with a major credit card. It's a violation of your privacy, it is unnecessary, and it is prohibited by the bank card companies.
0$ And, oh yes. Season's Greetings.