Best Time to Shop, Save for Christmas? Now

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Christmas In July
Bebeto Matthews/AP
Are you still reeling from your credit card bill after buying Christmas presents? You're not alone. Many Americans continue to put holiday spending on credit cards despite the warning signs of building consumer debt.

According to the National Retail Federation, holiday retail sales in 2013 increased 3.8 percent to $601.8 billion. More than $42 billion was spent online, a 10 percent increase in last year.

We give generously to our friends and family members each holiday season. That's fine until you reach for your credit cards to give the gifts and spend months paying the balances off. Far too many people give from their heart even when their wallet can't afford it. Don't make the same mistake this year. Here's how to give smartly.

Make a List Like Santa Claus

If you are like me, you want to buy gifts for a lot of people. My wife has to rein me in. Make a hard list just like Santa Claus on who is getting presents from you and your family this year and stick to it. Make a decision early in the year that you are going to only give gifts to your children and spouse this year. To help people from feeling hurt, communicate that as early as possible so there are no unrealistic expectations.

Create Your Own Christmas Club Account

How much did you spend on Christmas gifts this past December? You might be able to just review those credit card bills, and you should assume that you will spend about the same this year. According to Gallup, the average American spent $96 per day last December or almost $3,000 for the month. This spending does not include car loan payments, mortgage payments and typical monthly household bills. Instead, this reflects discretionary spending on things like Christmas gifts. This was the highest consumer spending in December since the 2008.

If you want to be safe, add 10 percent to what you spent last year. But the most important thing is to make -- and stick to -- a budget, just like you would for your other household monthly spending. Set a dollar value or a number of the amount of presents that you will buy your children this year.

I can remember my mother religiously setting aside a set amount of money each month from her paycheck into her Christmas Club savings account at our local credit union. While banks don't really set up Christmas Club accounts as they did decades ago, you can set up one on your own. Open a new savings account, nickname it Christmas Club, and set up a monthly automatic transfer to it.

Let's say you spent the $3,000. Divide that number (or however much you plan to spend on gifts) by the nine months left until Christmas. So you need to deposit $333 each month in that new savings account. This will keep you from having to reach to your credit cards this December.

Start Buying Gifts Now

Have you seen a great sale that's going on at your spouse's favorite store? What's keeping you from buying him or her a gift for Christmas now? I have a running list of presents that I know my wife would love. I keep them in a Wunderlist with notes, website addresses, running price list and other details. I also stalk my wife on Pinterest to find the perfect gift without having to ask.

"The Christmas holidays can often be budget busters for many families because we often equate gifts with happiness and love," says Michael H. Baker, a certified financial planner with Vertex Capital Advisors in Charlotte, N.C. "One way families can stay within their budgets is to look for buying opportunities throughout the year, instead of trying to do it all between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This way you can make strategic purchases and allow yourself time to make any exchanges should a better deal surface during the holiday season."

Make Saving for Christmas Presents a Game

How much did you spend last year? Can you beat that number this year? Make it a game. The gamification of finances is a powerful tool to help you reach your goals -- whether it is paying off debt, saving for retirement or saving for Christmas presents.

"The small chance to win something really big is a very motivating habit," says Priya Haji, CEO and cofounder of SaveUp. "That is what the lottery is all about. That's what Las Vegas is all about."

The SaveUp app for smartphones and website uses those same gamification insights to help you create a positive habit that can also reward you. Would you save more money if you doing so would enter you in a drawing to win $2 million, cars or vacations? The folks at SaveUp are betting it will. And you can use the same motivation to save for Christmas gifts.

Christmas and the holidays are a wonderful time to celebrate with friends and family. We are a very generous nation, and that trend can continue with a little planning that starts now.

Have much did you spend on holiday gifts last December? Do you over do it and pay for them with a credit card? How soon is too soon to start buying Christmas gifts for loved ones?

Hank Coleman is the publisher of the popular personal finance blog Money Q&A, where he answers readers' tough money questions. Follow him on Twitter @MoneyQandA.

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