The holiday shopping season is in full swing. Hordes of us are expected to be out scouting the malls and neighborhood boutiques or hovering at our computers to shop online over the next few weeks.
To ensure you have a safe-and-sane holiday shopping season, we've gathered tips from consumer experts. Here's a look:
-- Don't blow the budget
Before leaving home, make a list of everyone you're shopping for and the amount you plan to spend. One tip to keep your holiday spending sane: Carry cash; when it's gone, you know you're done shopping.
Other ideas: Pick names among family members or have a "Secret Santa" program so everyone is buying for one relative, not dozens. Instead of buying gifts for every friend on your list, host a potluck dinner or dessert night as a festive, less-costly way to celebrate the season.
-- Mind the plastic
If paying with plastic, designate one card for holiday spending. If you spread your purchases across too many credit cards it may feel like you're charging less, but you could wind up overspending and getting stuck with too much in fees and interest charges.
"Remove all unnecessary cards from your wallet," says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "(It) will not only help you stay within your budget, but will also lessen the damage in case of loss or theft."
Don't charge more than 60 percent of your available credit line, says Erica Sandberg, editor of CreditCardGuide.com in San Francisco. And be sure you can pay it off within one to two months. If you extend that balance for more than a couple months, your FICO credit score will take a hit, she said.
When shopping, be wary of tempting credit card offers at the cash register. While the "instant" 20-percent-off deals may sound irresistible, store cards are generally loaded with high interest rates. If you don't pay off your monthly balance, fees and interest payments could easily outstrip the initial discounts.-- Online shopping safely
Whether you're using a PC, Mac or smartphone, the holidays can be a minefield for online cybercrime.
In its "12 Scams of Christmas," computer security software firm McAfee warns consumers of common scams:
-- Holiday screensavers, ringtones and e-cards may sound festive, but can harbor malicious viruses or malware. If in doubt, don't download anything.
-- Hot gifts: The season's "must-have" gifts often pop up on rogue websites, even when the merchandise isn't available. Don't get tricked into giving out your credit card information but getting nothing in return.
-- Holiday "phishing" scams, using phony email or social media posts, try to dupe you into disclosing financial or personal data. Among recent examples: Phony Facebook contests and offers, such as free airline tickets, as well as fake texts from your bank.
-- Another common ruse is a phony email purportedly from UPS, saying you have a package waiting but need to confirm personal details to receive it.
To protect yourself, McAfee suggests:
-- Download mobile apps only from official app stores, such as iTunes and the Android Market. Read user reviews before downloading.
-- Be extra vigilant when responding to emails and phone texts. Don't click on links unless you know they're from a legitimate source.
-- Watch out for too-good-to-be-true offers on social networks such as Facebook. Never reveal your personal information to participate in a promotional contest.
--Last word: Carry with you some good cheer, a little common sense and a clear-eyed grip on your spending. It's a combination that could save you a serious holiday spending hangover in January.
(Contact Claudia Buck at email@example.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)
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