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For procrastinators like me, the days after Thanksgiving are usually a pretty big wake-up call — when I realize just how behind I am on holiday gift shopping.

Without a solid plan or budget, and my tendency to wait until the last minute to do just about everything, buying Christmas gifts can be stressful. I usually wait until the week of Christmas, get swept up in the holiday excitement and overspend.

Buyer's remorse kicks in the same time I regret eating that second piece of pie.

This year, I wanted to break the habit. So, I talked with certified financial planner Matt Knoll, with the Planning Center in Moline, to learn how to avoid overspending during the holidays.

Here are some of his tips.

Create a budget for gift shopping

While it might seem simple, creating a spending budget is the first way to ease shopping anxiety when money's tight. 

Think through the different aspects of holiday spending, including gifts, travel expenses, food and decorations. Determine how much you can realistically set aside each week to save for the holidays, and then multiply that by the number of weeks left to shop.

Deciding how much you can afford isn't always easy. Knoll said be realistic and cut down on needless spending to save extra cash. 

"Planning ahead and saving throughout the year can help you avoid racking up a big credit card bill with high interest payments to pay in the months following the holidays," Knoll said. 

Make a list and check it twice

Knoll advises holiday shoppers to create a list of friends and family members, with a dollar limit for each person, to help avoid overspending.

"Knowing your finances can help you plan ahead for the dollar limit you can afford," he said. "If you always receive a gift from someone that is more expensive, you shouldn't have to feel like you need to match their gift spending amount. Everyone is in a different spot financially, and sometimes just spending time with friends and family can be a great impact." 

Homemade gifts, creating memories, and even re-purposing previous gifts, can be alternatives to get through the gift-giving season. 

While shopping, try to use cash or debit to avoid racking up credit card debt. Plus, be wary of retail sales. Stores often tempt shoppers with loyalty cards, retail credit, decoy pricing and other incentives, and they aren't all created equal. 

If you overspend, give yourself recovery time

Shopping responsibly over the holidays is a work in progress. Don't be hard on yourself if you get caught up in the season of giving.

If spending gets out of hand, Knoll said it's time to reevaluate after the holidays.

"If you do manage to build up a balance on the credit card, adjusting your normal lifestyle budget for a couple of weeks to payoff your debt can help save interest in the long run and avoid digging deeper into a debt hole," he said. "This might mean spending less on discretionary items like eating out, clothes shopping or entertainment for a while." 

Do better next time

The best thing you can do during the holiday shopping season is learn from your habits.

I have plenty of friends who somehow manage to save gifts all year long for Christmas, and they barely feel a dent in their budgets during the holidays. While I'm still far from being that proactive in my gift giving, it is important to understand your spending habits, all year-round. 

Knoll said shoppers should set up an automatic savings plan to save money throughout the year, including for the holidays and other major shopping seasons. 

"A lot of banks and credit unions offer a Christmas club program to save a fixed dollar amount each month into a savings account in preparation for holiday spending," Knoll said. 

It's also useful to start a conversation with family members about what expectations exist for gift giving, and be honest about your financial situation. 

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Sarah Ritter is the business reporter for the Quad-City Times. Each week, she will write an experiential column as part of the series, "Cash Course," aimed at reaching financial security and tackling stereotypes about money. Got an idea? Email sritter@qctimes.com

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