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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

Almost half of us begin our holiday shopping before Halloween, so that would be now. That's according to the National Retail Federation.

And here with some advice for getting all those gifts paid off long before Easter is DAY TO DAY's personal finance expert Michelle Singletary.

Hi, Michelle.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Hi.

BRAND: What are some of the worst holiday-spending mistakes people make, besides spending too much?

SINGLETARY: Well, you know, I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is when they go shopping, they also buy stuff for themselves. And you probably have done that, right?

BRAND: Absolutely. That's the best part.

SINGLETARY: The National Retail Federation says that on average consumers this year say they're going to spend about $100 on themselves, and I believe it's probably much more than that.

And then they also sign up for credit cards while they're shopping. You know, get that 10 percent discount now. It's holiday, you know you need it. Do not sign up for those cards. It's not worth it in the long run because you'll get a ding on your credit score. And then when you go get a car or a house, that lower credit score is going to cost you a higher interest rate. And so that 10, $20 that you think you're saving can end up costing you hundreds of dollars down the road.

BRAND: Okay. What about shopping on the Internet? Is that better or worse for people trying to stick to a budget?

SINGLETARY: You know, I actually like shopping on the Internet because a couple of things. You can get great deals. You don't have to worry about parking. And most of all, you don't have to worry about the temptation of being in the mall, which I call the den of the iniquity. Because you walk in and there's colors and there's bells and there's whistles, and people are baking cookies in the cookie shop. And all of those things are used to get you to spend more. But when you're at home at your computer and it's kind of sterile and you want to get it down really quickly, you spend less when you shop on the Internet.

BRAND: And you have told us in years past that the best thing to do is stick to a list, write down the amount that you're going to spend for each person.

SINGLETARY: Yeah. You know, the thing is, you think, oh, every year, you know, we hear the same kind of tips. And every year people go overboard and in January and February and March they're still stuck with debt. So you cannot listen to me or you can listen to these wise tips: make a list. Beside each person, put the amount that you're going to spend. Take that list with you and stick to it. And also, you know what? Shop at a time when it's not very crowded and you're going to be standing in line and you get frustrated and you just sort of grab anything just to get out of there. You know, go early, early in the morning, or actually close to when they're about to close or maybe the people have already gone home. But really, these tried and true ways will help you from waking up in January, wishing that you hadn't over spent your Christmas budget.

BRAND: You know, I'm just going to take that money and leave. Go away, just spend it on a vacation and just not...

SINGLETARY: I love that idea.

BRAND: ...not spend money on anybody else.

SINGLETARY: I love that idea. One year, my family and I, we spent $100. It was a challenge that I had for myself and my family.

BRAND: A hundred dollar?

SINGLETARY: A hundred dollars for everybody. It was the best Christmas we ever spent.

BRAND: For how many people?

SINGLETARY: Well, I mean, it was probably for about a dozen people.

BRAND: A dozen people?

SINGLETARY: I'm not kidding you, because I got five in my immediate family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So less than 10 bucks a person.

SINGLETARY: It was. It was. We became very creative that year. And it was wonderful because we weren't out in the mall, so we were sitting at home, reading Christmas stories and talking to each other. Imagine that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Well, there's the challenge, listeners, hundred bucks or less.

Okay, thank you, Michelle.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

BRAND: Michelle Singletary is our regular expert on personal finance, and she writes the nationally syndicated column The Color of Money.

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