Holiday Shopping window
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The holiday shopping season is now in full swing. Are you feeling the pressure to spend too much on stocking stuffers, video games and gift cards this year?

If so, you’re far from alone. A new survey released this month by SunTrust Bank found that 46 percent of U.S. shoppers feel pressure to spend more than they can afford during the holidays. That’s up from 39 percent who felt the same way in 2014.

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The good news? You don’t have to bust your budget this holiday season. You just need to plan what you’re going to spend and then stick to that blueprint.

If you don’t? The odds are high that the debt on your credit card will soar by the time 2016 rolls around. And opening that first statement of the new year won’t be a merry event.

Not so merry?

“Rising credit card balances, overdrawn accounts and limited time to spend with family are a few of the top holiday stressors clients tell us about,” said Brad Dinsmore, head of consumer banking at SunTrust, in a statement.

SunTrust’s annual Holiday Financial Well-Being Survey found that Millennials feel much of the stress common during the holiday shopping season. According to the survey, 42 percent of consumers from the ages of 18 to 34 expect more financial stress related to the holiday shopping season this year than last. That’s the highest percentage of any age group.

There is a way to alleviate this stress, though. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling recommends that consumers — young and old — review their savings carefully before they begin their holiday shopping. Consumers can then determine how much they have to spend before resorting to putting their holiday purchases on credit cards. The foundation recommends that you stay within this cash budget, even if you’d like to spend more.

The foundation recommends, too, that consumers make a detailed list of who they need to shop for. They can then list how much they want to spend on each of these people. You might want to spend $80 on your spouse, but only $20 on your older brother, for example. Such a list will make it less likely that you’ll overspend on any one particular person. It also makes it less likely that you’ll continue to add new people to buy for throughout the holiday season.

“Rising credit card balances, overdrawn accounts and limited time to spend with family are a few of the top holiday stressors clients tell us about.” – Brad Dinsmore, head of consumer banking at SunTrust Bank

SunTrust recommends that you set up text alerts that will tell you when your checking account or savings account balance is running low. This will help you avoid overdrafts caused by overzealous shopping. SunTrust suggests, too, that you download your bank’s mobile app before heading to the stores. That way, you can continually check your balances and chart just how much you’re spending. Seeing these numbers in real time might stop you from adding last-minute unnecessary gifts to your shopping cart.

Another tip? SunTrust recommends that you cash in any credit card rewards that you have earned throughout the year to help defray the costs of holiday gifts.

“Careful planning and preparation can make those dollars go even farther,” said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, in a statement.

Less spending this year?

Consumers of all ages might be forced to spend less this year on holiday shopping, according to the foundation. The organization in October surveyed consumers on how much they plan to spend this shopping season, and 50 percent said that they planned to spend less because they are worse off financially this year than last.

An additional 37 percent said that they don’t plan to spend at all because they expect future financial problems.

If you are feeling financially stressed — your credit card balances are high, your bank account is low and not enough money is coming in each month — don’t add to your problems by adding to your credit card debt this holiday shopping season. Be realistic: Spend only what you can afford without adding to your debt load.

And if this means that you can’t afford to buy any gifts this year? Then stay away from the stores or the Amazon.coms of the world completely.

Yes, not shopping might take some of the joy away from the holiday season. But remember, this season will end soon. But the debt that you accumulate can take you months or years to pay off. Your friends and family members will understand if money is tight this holiday shopping season. Don’t let guilt force you into the stores this December if your finances can’t handle the additional debt.

Dan Rafter

Dan is a MyBankTracker writer and blogger who is an expert in real estate, mortgage finance, credit cards and retirement.

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