How to Shop on Black Friday Without Going Into the Red
By: Jeff Brown

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Here we are on the eve of Black Friday – time for those nifty money-saving tips for the holiday season. The most important, as everyone knows, is to make your own gifts. Baking is good. And craft shops are full of cool ideas.

Just kidding. The fact is, thrift experts can recommend self-restraint until they’re blue in the face, but people are still going to splurge for the holidays. And it’s easy to forgive a little spending spree after all the belt tightening we’ve done this year.

Still, a little discipline can pay off and not ruin the holiday fun. So what are the smart moves that people are really likely to try?

Even if you’re not going to devise a strict budget at the start of the holiday shopping season, it does make sense to keep track of what you have been spending as the season moves along. That’s especially so for credit card users, else whopping bills trigger hefty interest charges come January.

Certainly, the simplest system is to carry a little notebook for a running tally of expenditures. But it’s nearly as easy these days to set up an electronic system to track expenses on your smartphone or home computer. Most credit card companies offer online systems for tracking spending and payment due dates, and many have smartphone apps that let you check accounts while on the move.

Most firms offer free alert systems that will email or text customers when their debit accounts run low, when a credit card gets close to the limit, or when payments are due. These days, there’s no reason to be surprised if you’ve hit a limit.

Also, you can use online services like Mint.com or financial software like Quicken to automatically funnel information from a variety of accounts to one place. These programs will also categorize expenses, though that takes a bit of setup to work well.

Another smart move is to use cash and checks rather than credit cards, because your spending will be limited to the money in your account, helping you cap spending and avoid interest charges. And while many people say they will shop with debit cards this year, some fraud protection services warn that debit users are more susceptible to having their personal information stolen.

If you must use credit cards, use those with the lowest interest rates. Also, watch for mail offering zero-interest transfers of balances from one card to another. They can be a good way to avoid financing charges if you won’t be able to pay your balances in full right away, though users should be aware of fees that may be tacked on even if there is no interest charge.  Just keep in mind that at some point new charges will not be subject to the same zero-interest grace period. And if you make only the minimum payment required, it will apply to the zero-interest portion of your balance, allowing interest on other parts of your debt to snowball.

Finally, while you’re getting organized, dig around for gift cards you’ve received but not used during the past year. The typical gift card recipient leaves some money on the card, or forgets the card entirely, and these forgotten pools of money may help you through this year’s holiday spending.

—For more ways to save, spend, invest and borrow, visit MainStreet.com.

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