The holiday shopping season is officially here and as the pile of presents has potential to grow, so does America’s credit card debt.

According to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas (CCCS Dallas) Americans are already carrying nearly $1 trillion of outstanding revolving credit card debt and millions of consumers only make the minimum payment each month on these accounts.

And this year, consumers' holiday spending is projected to increase 5.1 percent with the average consumer spending $800 this season.

While retailers hope the bright holiday spending forecast predicted by the National Retailer Federation (NRF) will hold up, CCCS Dallas is preparing clients with budgeting and shopping tips to prevent the collection of holiday debt.

“The NRF's 2005 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey states that more than one-third of consumers have already begun their holiday shopping,” said CCCS Dallas’ Michelle Jones. “We feel now is a perfect time for consumers to learn about smart holiday shopping.”

Below are holiday shopping tips provided by CCCS Dallas' Vice President of Business Relations Gail Cunningham.

l Never pile new debt on top of old, or you'll end up paying interest on the interest.

l Keep all receipts. Some retailers are making it tougher for shoppers to return goods by slapping on restocking fees, time limits and fine print. Therefore, if you need to return something and don't have the receipt, things will get much more complicated.

l On the flip side, many stores are providing gift receipts to include with the gift. It doesn't reveal the price, but if the recipient doesn't like or need the gift, returns are much simpler.

l Be like Santa. Make a list and check it twice. Your list should include the names of those for whom you'll be buying gifts, any gift idea and the estimate of how much you'd like to spend on that person.

l Remember to include people on your list such as teachers, co-workers, babysitters, and so on, as many small gifts at the last minute can add up and wreck the best of plans.

l Suggest drawing names for gifts instead of giving to each person. Give a gift the entire family could enjoy.

l Don't forget to allow for costs such as decorations, wrapping paper, mailing and postage, extra for food and drinks if you're entertaining, and travel expenses.

l Shop with a mission. During the Christmas season, when the stores are decorated and the carols playing is not a time to dawdle. Go to the mall as though you were on a reconnaissance mission. Get in and get out.

l Don't impulse shop or shop when you're tired. You'll end up spending more just to be able to check a gift off your list.

l Take frequent breaks and review what you've spent.

l Merchants start marking down some items before Thanksgiving. You run the risk of inventory being picked over if you wait for a sale, so you have to decide whether price or selection is important to you.

l Comparison shop from the comfort of your own home by using the Internet. Most major merchants have online sites, and many will offer free shipping.

l Consider using your debit card or cash instead of charging. There is more of an emotional attachment to cash than to plastic, so people tend to be a little stingier with their cash. By paying with cash or debit card, when you're out of money, you're through shopping!

l If you must use plastic, deduct each charge from your checkbook. That way you'll know when you're truly out of money.

l General-purpose credit cards usually have a lower interest rate than specialized department store cards. Try using those cards for your purchases.

l Dedicate only one or two of your credit cards for holiday purchases. Spreading out the purchases over many cards only makes it harder to track.

l If you charge your debts, vow to pay them off early next year. If you don't, any savings on the purchase that you enjoyed will be wiped out by the interest charged on your debt.

l Watch for tricks to make you spend more. Don't fall for credit card offers to "skip a payment." You'll only pay more in interest next month.

l Likewise, watch out for the "buy now and pay later" offers that encourage you to spend money you don't have. It may sound good, but the catch is that interest accrues even though you don't have to make payments. If you fail to pay off the purchase by the time the grace period ends, you're stuck with paying all that accrued interest.

l Also, bypass the temptation to open a new department store card just to get a one-time discount.

l Cut back on your everyday spending now in order to find extra cash for holiday expenses.

l Consider getting a part-time job to bring in extra money, and dedicate it to holiday bills.

l Start planning for next year right now.

l Keep track of what you've spent this Christmas, divide it by 10, and begin socking that amount away each month of 2006.

l Join a Christmas Club. These accounts are still offered by some financial institutions. Even though they don't pay much interest, you'll have a debt-free Christmas next year...a wonderful gift to yourself!

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