As long as we are doing it this year, why not do it always?

"This year, it all comes down to value and getting the best bang for your shopping dollar," said Tod (cq) Marks, senior editor of Consumer Reports.

He was referring to a survey by the magazine showing nearly two-thirds of

Americans plan to cut back on holiday spending. That's on top of the last year's cutbacks, when more than three-fourths of Americans polled by Consumer Reports said they planned to spend less.

With the recession and economic downturn putting a crimp in holiday spending, shoppers have become more selective and cost-conscious.

It's about time. Even now, the Consumer Reports poll found that 6 percent of the 1,000 Americans surveyed -- nationwide, that translates to about 13.5 million of us -- are still saddled with credit card debt from last year's holidays. Despite their stated intention to cut back, only 38 percent of consumers made a budget for the holidays last year and of them, 44 percent exceeded it, including 5 percent who said they went "way over" it.

Overall, according to the National Retail Federation, shoppers spent nearly $442 billion during last year's holiday season, down just 3.4 percent form 2007 despite the plans to cut back.

This year, according to the Consumer Reports poll, about 50 percent of Americans say they are making a budget for the holiday season. That leaves 50 percent failing to follow a basic and quintessential holiday shopping advice.

"Allocate a certain amount for each person and don't exceed your total budget," advises Bob Brooks, host of the syndicated radio talk show Prudent Money and author of the book "Deceptive Money." Charge only what you can pay when the bill comes and consider making "sentimental" rather than purely material gifts -- something we can make ourselves rather than simply buy an expensive gadget, he also recommends.

I can relate. One of the most memorable holiday gifts I've received is a music compact disc my daughter, Veronica, burned with 12 of my favorite songs -- old songs I had despaired of ever finding. She found them after a diligent search online and she also designed a cover for the CD's jewel case. The gift could not have cost her more than $15-$20 but it's priceless because of the time and love she put into learning about my favorite songs and finding them.

Beyond material gifts, let's remember what the holidays are all about. Despite planning to cut back on shopping, 87 percent of American adults hope the holiday season this year will be as happy or happier than last year, the Consumer Reports poll found.

Fact is, you don't need to spend a lot of money for a happy holiday. If anything, the opposite may be the case.

"Do you sometimes feel trapped by the shopping, spending, and frenzied preparations?" asks a "Simplify the Holidays" booklet from the Center for a New American Dream. "Do you want your holidays wrapped more in meaning and less in stuff?"

You can download the 30-page booklet by signing up at the free Web site

The booklet offers practical tips on setting up a holiday budget and coming up with simple but meaningful gift ideas. These include homemade gifts; gifts of time, such as offering to do household chores for an elderly relative; gifts of experience, such as teaching a skill you possess, and gifts to charity, including donating to a cause in somebody else's name.


You Really Can Stick to a Holiday Budget

© Humberto Cruz


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