'Tis a month before Christmas and all through the land, no shopper is safe without a good plan.
That's the message financial counselors are giving consumers who may be tempted to overspend this holiday shopping season.
"Spend only the amount that you budget, and if you don't have a budget, get one," says Joseph Pauls, director for Crown Financial Ministries in Fresno, Calif, an interdenominational organization that teaches biblical financial principles in small group studies offered through area churches. "Impulsive spending will bury you."
Pauls says many Americans are drowning in debt. Most are living beyond their means, and the Christmas season, with its pressure to spend on everything from presents and entertaining to charitable contributions, often makes shaky financial situations worse.
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, says Pauls. But in a recent USA Today poll, 66 percent of respondents said they were worried about their financial futures.
"Our saving rate is the lowest it's been since 1947, according to the Federal Reserve Board," says Pauls. "We have more debt, more gambling and more bankruptcies on a percentage basis than we've had since 1947."
"It's very easy to get overextended," says Jacqueline Williams, housing and education director for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Central Valley Inc. in Fresno. "The intent is to buy now and pay later. People focus on immediate gratification, and they aren't looking to the future. Right now, we're working with people who are still trying to pay off their bills from last Christmas."
Everybody likes to buy things and give presents, says Judy Thompson, education director for California Credit Counseling. But this positive attitude can be dangerous if uncontrolled.
Take, for example, the person who buys a gift for everyone on his or her shopping list and then spots the "perfect" gift for one of those people. "Buying the additional gift blows the budget," says Thompson.
The Christmas shopping season can be an especially difficult time for the unwary because emotions tend to burn hotter, heating up the passion to spend money on people and worthy causes. "In years past, I was in the mode where you have to buy as much as possible for everyone on your list," says Twila Senter of Clovis, Calif. "And we usually went into debt doing that."
But Senter and her husband, Dewitt, changed their approach four years ago after taking a Crown Ministries course.
"Now, we have a budget category for gifts, and we stay within that budget," she says. "It's a little hard sometimes, but it's a lot less stressful."
The Senters stopped buying Christmas gifts for all their nieces and nephews.
"What I do is send them gifts on their birthdays," she says. "That way, we don't feel guilty at not giving them all gifts at Christmas."
Senter says she usually starts her Christmas shopping about the first of December. "I'm not a 'way-in-advance' person."
By contrast, Renee and Kenny Worden of Clovis plan to have all their Christmas gifts wrapped and ready before Dec. 1. Getting things done early allows the Wordens to spend more time with their children, Britni, 11, and Chase, 9. It also frees their family to do volunteer work at a local homeless shelter.
Kenny Worden used to do his shopping on Christmas Eve but changed his ways after seeing the benefits of planning ahead.
For the past 11 years, the Wordens have started their gift buying and Christmas preparations around the first of October with the goal of getting everything done by Dec. 1. "Doing it at this pace gives us time to reflect and spend time together as a family," says Renee Worden.
The Wordens have 25 to 30 people on their gift list each year. Many of the gifts are handmade treasures produced in their own home.
"We make things like Christmas ornaments, soaps and candles," says Renee Worden. "We just set up a table and work together on them as a family."
When buying gifts, Renee Worden likes to select inspirational items from Bible bookstores because she believes purchased gifts need to have a spiritual message.
Besides making gifts for others, the Wordens have developed a family shopping tradition that adds to the fun of holiday preparations.
"Every year," she says, "we make a trip to the outlet stores ... My husband takes one child shopping while I take the other. Then we switch off. We try to make it a special day with our kids."
If you have a long gift-giving list, it's important to keep a record of what you gave to whom each year, says Renee Worden. She started her notebook several years ago after giving her brother an identical electric grill she had presented to him a few years before.
Holiday shopping is a breeze if you start early, keep good records and get everyone to pitch in.
"It's really pretty easy if you have a list and check it twice," says Renee Worden.