Reuters: Oddly Enough

(ARA) - The past few years have been hard on the American pocketbook - and psyche. Just when we think we see the light at the end of the recessionary tunnel, something happens to make us pull our belts a little tighter and dampen our spirits. Many of us have had to curtail spending for quite some time, and with the holiday season (read, shopping season) coming up fast, we're itching just to let go and spend like it's 1999.

But be wary shoppers, warns June Walbert, a certified financial planner with USAA. Don't let what she calls "budget fatigue" seduce you into spending beyond your means.

"I think people are tired and frustrated because they haven't been able to spend money in the ways that they have in the past," Walbert says. "They want to kick up their heels and have a better holiday than they did last year."

More people do say they plan to open up their wallets this season. USAA's annual survey of holiday spending found 96 percent of those asked plan on gift shopping. Last year that number was 90 percent.

Shopper, know thy budget
No matter how much you budget for holiday shopping, you need to be realistic. Walbert says the way to minimize huge January bills is to make a list and stick to it once you get to a store or online shopping site. "If folks needed to be on a strict budget last year, they probably need to stay on one this year," Walbert adds.

Good advice. But how many will follow it? Not as many as in previous years, according to the USAA poll. Results show the slice of shoppers who plan on budgeting has dropped from 64 percent in 2009 to 57 percent this year, and only 43 percent plan to actually stick to their budget.

Paper or Plastic?
Even with a budget and the discipline to follow it, the payment method you use can affect the actual price you pay in the long run. No matter how you pay - credit card, debit card or even cold hard cash - there can be an extra price to pay.

The hardest hit can come from buy-now-pay-later rationalizing. Almost half - 48 percent - of those polled said they would pay with a credit card. More than one out of four of those credit card users plan to let their balances revolve for at least several months. High interest rates and late fees could allow their debts to balloon out of control, turning a $30 gift into a much higher priced item.

But not all plastic has that kind of potential. "I love debit cards," Walbert says, "because if you don't have money in the bank, your transaction is not approved." But even if it is approved, that doesn't mean you can afford a particular purchase.

Even if shoppers plan on paying with cash - as 83 percent of those polled do - out-of-network ATM fees can add up quickly. The average surcharge is $2.40 per transaction. The solution: Avoid ATM fees by staying in-network, or better yet, go with a bank that reimburses for out-of-network ATM fees.

For those who already know what they want to buy, Walbert believes layaway shopping is a good option. "It allows you to start your shopping early, lessen the financial demands that the holidays bring, and you can still get the gift you want," she says.

There may be a small layaway fee charged by the retailer, Walbert adds, but it's better than paying the interest on a credit card purchase.

Are we there yet?
The bottom line for many holiday shoppers is that it may not yet be time for a blowout celebration, so don't let budget fatigue push common sense to the side.

"I would encourage people to just hang in there and don't overspend for the holidays," advises Walbert. "Have a good holiday, but don't go overboard, and that will make for a more pleasant January."Holiday shoppers: beware of 'budget fatigue'
Category: Lifestyle