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Debt-proofing your holiday

The holiday season should be about family and friends, not money woes and stress-related health problems.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With the gift-giving season upon us, it can be very tempting to run up those bills. Here are ways to debt-proof your holiday.

1: Get Organized

Two-thirds of Americans didn't bother with a holiday budget last year and almost three in five don't plan one this year, according to Consumer Reports. Don't fall into the trap.

First you'll need to figure out how much you should spend on gifts. Don't spend more than you can pay off in one or two months. Some financial planners recommend you don't spend more than 1.5% of your annual income on gifts.

Take a good look at what you spend on decorations, holiday meals, cards and tips. Once you figure out all your expenses, check out Christmasorganizer.com. On this site you can download holiday planner forms, gift lists and calendars.

2: Think outside the box

Who needs another sweater or a crock pot?

You don't always need to spend a ton of dough on presents. Think about curbing all those last minute gift impulses by giving a donation to charity in the name of your friend or relative.

Check out charitynavigator.org so you can evaluate and choose a legit charity. But you may also want to give your friends and family the gift of experience. Would your dad appreciate a personal errand servicer for a day? Maybe you want to send your in-laws up in a hot air balloon. You can even send your brother to cooking class.

Check out xperiencedays.com and signaturedays.com.

3: Compare Prices

You can save time and money by shopping online. Plus, you won't be tempted by all those "Impulse" purchases at the store.

To do some comparison shopping, go to shopping.com and bizrate.com. These sites let you compare products and deals. Plus, if you do decide to shop online, you can often get free shipping.

4: Get the best reward card

If you don't carry a credit-card balance from month-to-month and you have a good credit score, getting a rewards card that pays YOU back is a nice way to get something back from your holiday shopping. But get the details.

You may only be able to use your cash back card at specific merchants. Make sure the store you shop at most often qualifies for your particular card. Plus, some cards are tiered - meaning the more you spend the more you earn - so read the fine print and clearly understand the amount you must charge to earn a certain percentage.

Here are some favorites from cardratings.com: Discover's More Card, Citi's Professional Cash Card and Blue Cash from American Express.

You can check out the terms of these cards and many others at cardratings.com. To top of page

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send e-mails to toptips@cnn.com or click here - each week, we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and CNNMoney.com.
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