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Don’t make a false start this shopping season: Budget

Daniel Ray

You’ve probably seen, whether in person at your local high school or on TV at the Olympics, false starts in foot races at the track. The athletes toe into the starting blocks, set their hands down carefully, and then “Bang! Bang!” The starter pistol fires twice and the athletes slow down because someone jumped the gun.

I’m calling a false start on this holiday shopping season.

I know many of you are raring to race to the mall or to your favorite online stores, but most of you are going out there with your shopping shoes untied. You likely haven’t set a budget — or if you’ve set it, you likely won’t really stick to it, according to a pair of new polls.

A survey released today by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) says 63 percent of Americans plan to head out shopping without setting a budget.

“It’s concerning that the majority of shoppers this holiday season will not have a spending plan along with their shopping list,” Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE, says in a release. “Having a gift budget really helps keep spending on track and prevents a situation where emotion takes over.”

That poll contrasts with one released Nov. 7 by American Express, which said about two in three will set a holiday budget — but that only 48 percent of us plan to stick with it.

Either way, that means a ton of folks will be pressing noses to the glass of stores with no firm idea of what they’ll end up spending.

So spend a little time — today, or tomorrow, before the madness begins — and pull out a piece of paper or curl up with a spreadsheet for a while to plot your budget. If you need your hand held, you’re in the right place. We have a list of 2011 holiday credit card special promotions to help make your money go further. We have tips to help you stick to your holiday budget and tips to protect yourself on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

You don’t like our tips? Fine. No offense taken. Try those from the Credit Union National Association and Consumer Federation of America. Or from Consolidated Credit. Or go for SmartAboutMoney.org’s Holiday Survival Guide. Maybe try Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s online shopping tips.

Me, I just put together a simple spreadsheet. I’ll write names and the item I think they’ll really like, and research its price. I’ll drag the mouse over the price column to sum it up — and usually go, “Ooh. Can’t afford that. Let’s see where I can trim.” Eventually, I get to my comfort zone, which usually for me is a holiday debt I can pay within 30 days.

Wherever you get ideas that you think will work for you, fine.

Just do it. Take an hour or so over the next few days before you join the race and set a budget.

And then: On your mark, get set, shop.

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