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With the holidays just weeks away, shopping is already underway for most consumers and retailers have already begun marketing holiday deals. And while holiday shoppers report planning to spend slightly less than they did last year, the average consumer will still spend $704.18 on holiday gifts and seasonal merchandise. (Source: National Retail Federation)

CredAbility, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency, recommends that consumers continue to use caution when shopping this holiday season. Take advantage of sales to make planned purchases, but leave other items on the shelf. Don’t let the thought of getting a ‘deal’ cloud your judgment. Impulse purchases can created holiday debt that you will pay for well into the New Year and beyond.

Here are some do’s and don’ts to help shoppers:

DO: Make a list and stick to it

Having a list of the people you need to buy for and a budget for each person is a great way to make sure you don’t overspend. Jot down ideas for each person and use that to help guide you while you shop.

DO: Plan your shopping before you leave the house

Use the newspaper circulars and the internet to plan your shopping trip. If you know exactly where you are going and what you plan to buy while you are there, you are less likely to deviate from your plan. Get an advanced look at sale ads at web sites such as www.theblackfriday.com and www.bfads.net, which already include sales and item debut information and will have lots more information leading up to Black Friday on November 25.

DO: Shop before the big sales

Avoid the Black Friday mall crowds by shopping a day or two earlier. Many stores will refund the price difference if the item goes on sale within days of purchase. This policy may not apply to all Black Friday specials.

DO: Shop Online

Get a jump start on your shopping now by shopping online. You can take advantage of sale prices and free shipping offers and never have to leave the house.

Don’t forget about “Cyber Monday”—The Monday after Thanksgiving is expected to be a busy shopping day for online retailers. Online stores may be offering special deals with the hopes of increasing their sales. Visit www.cybermonday.com or www.cybermonday2011.com for regular updates on online deals.

DO: Compare Prices

Compare the price your retailer is offering by using sites such as www.pricegrabber, www.fatwallet.com and www.nextag.com. For information on available rebates on consumer electronics, computer software and hardware, and other items, visit www.rebateplace.com. And before you buy anything, look for coupons to save on in-store and online purchases. Sites such as www.couponcabin.com or www.dealcatcher.com can help you find deals for dollars off, a percentage off, or free shipping that can add up to hundreds of dollars in savings.

DON’T: Window Shop

Try not to head to a store without even an idea of what you are planning to buy. You will almost always end up spending more than you planned. If you go to a store for a particular item, get it and leave instead of strolling through all of the aisles.

DON’T: Bring credit cards

Studies have shown that people who use credit cards to buy gifts spend an average of 30 percent more than people who use cash. When you add in all the finance charges over months, or even years, that “perfect gift” could cost you twice what you paid for it, or more. You can’t make an impulse buy if you don’t have the money with you to do it. Leaving your credit cards at home will require you to take some time to think about it before making a purchase.

DON’T: Make impulse purchases

While there are many opportunities to save money this holiday season, something is not a deal just because the retailers says it is. Do your homework. Research the items you are considering, compare prices at several retailers, and be sure it is a deal before making the purchase.

DON’T: Throw away receipts

Make sure you know the return policy for all of your purchases, and store your receipts in an easy to find place. You may find the same item on sale, or locate a hard-to-find item and need to return something you already purchased.

DON’T: Make unnecessary purchases

While your original gift list might have everyone you ever met, you’ll need to be realistic in order to stick to your budget. Talk with friends about not exchanging gifts or setting a limit on spending. Many families draw names in order to have one person to purchase for, or limit gifts just to the children. Instead of gifts for coworkers or your boss, bake some goodies and bring them in for everyone to share.

Richard Schram is the regional president for CredAbility