• Make a shopping list and stick to it.
• Set aside a specific amount to spend on each person.
• Compare advertised prices among stores and online.
• Get in and out of stores as fast as possible to avoid browsing. Consider shopping during lunch or near store closings to set time limitations.
• Use one credit card and track how much is spent.
Sources: Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' consumer credit counseling service, National Foundation for Credit Counseling
It's the most wonderful time of the year for retailers, but local credit counselors worry Chattanoogans drunk on holiday cheer may wake up January with killer credit hangovers.
"There are people going into holiday 2011 still paying for holiday 2010," said Gail Cunningham with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "People want to pat themselves on the back and think they've been a savvy consumer because they found an item 20 percent off, and then they spend the next year paying for it and that negates the savings."
The best way to avoid overspending is to plan, she said. Make a budget. Compare prices. When hitting the store, stick to a shopping list and don't linger in the aisles to browse.
"Treat shopping as a reconnaissance mission. Get in and get out," she said. "It's a science, not just happenstance, how they market the items. You may go to a store and land the item of your dreams at bargain basement prices, but that item is going to be surrounded by items for sale at full price."
Diane Hart plans to be a savvy shopper this year. She and her family shop Black Friday every year hunting for deals. This year, she's sticking to her list, trying to keep down Christmas spending and pay off some bills.
"Our main thing this year is to get together and be a family," she said while shopping with her daughter Amanda at the Target store in East Brainerd.
The family's getting older and the kids are a little less Santa crazy now, anyway.
"I'm running out of things I want," Amanda said.
But Americans in general have no shortage of items to add to their lists. The National Retail Federation projects consumers will spend about $465.6 billion this year, a 2.8 percent increase over 2010. That works out to just under $720 each on gifts, decorations, food and cards.
But every year, gift givers less in-tune with their wallets overspend, sometimes to dangerous extents.
The Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' consumer credit counseling service consistently works with 1,000 clients on debt management plans throughout year, adding and dropping between 25 and 30 each month. But in January and February, those add numbers inevitably kick higher as Christmas credit card bills arrive.
"If people do overspend and get to the point where their credit cards are maxing out and they can't do anything but the minimum payments, that's when they go into debt management," said Linda Rath, the service's director. "The economy is still pretty shaky out there. Consumers need to set a budget and stick to it."
Those who don't budget end up spending $100 to $200 more each year, Rath said.
That spending adds up quickly and can get families into real trouble come 2012. Shoppers often go into debt trying to give their family members a great Christmas, Cunningham said, but the long-term problems are more detrimental than the temporary Christmas glee.
"You're not doing them or yourself any favors," she said. "I don't want to be Scrooge, so if you are in good shape I'm all for consumer spending this holiday season. I understand how important this is to the health of our economy, but I also understand how devastating it can be to an individual."