It wasn't that long ago that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, kicked off the traditional Christmas shopping season.

Not so any more. With a struggling economy, stores and merchants have extended the holiday shopping season several weeks. Here it is, a week until Thanksgiving, and many stores are already decked out in Christmas finery for some time.

Retailers are cautiosly optimistic this year that Christmas sales will be up this year. The National Retail Federation predicts that consumers are expected to spend 2.3 percent more this holiday season than last year.

While shopping is both a joyful and stressful time for gift shoppers, Citizens Bank has drawn up some guidelines to help consumers not overspend this season, while getting the most for their dollar.

Their suggestions include:

Ÿ Set up a spending budget Know your spending limits and avoid impulse purchases.

Ÿ Make a list Write down all the people and organizations you want to recognize during the holidays, setting a spending limit for each. Don't forget to take the list with you when you go shopping.

Ÿ Don't bring all your credit cards Try to pay off the credit card bill every month. If you can't, use the card with the lowest interest rate.

Ÿ Use debit cards The money is deducted from your checking account right away and there will be no bill to pay later. A debit card is also safer than carrying cash. Some banks issued debit cards that give back reward points that may be redeemed for gift cards.

Ÿ Write down credit and debit card information Make a list of all your accound numbers and phone numbers for your cards in case your wallet is lost or stolen.

Ÿ Consider layaway plans Be sure you understand the terms and are not charged fees of interest. And be careful, the payments may be deferred, but you will still have to pay them.

Ÿ Start at saving plan It may be too late for this year, but consider beginning an automatic savings account for next year. If you stick some money into your account every payday, you'll be a much happier shopper when next Black Friday rolls around.

Bob Urban

rurban@tnonline.com [1]