shoppping-sale_web.jpgCHICAGO (AP) — As the holiday shopping season expands and retailers make impulse buys ever-easier via smartphone and otherwise, consumers have to be extra-disciplined to avoid money trouble.

Unfortunately, many will take months to pay off the goodies they bought for loved ones – or themselves. Smart spending for the holidays isn't all about finding the best deals. It’s important to be on your toes to prevent the holidays from dooming you to too much debt.

Some tips to keep spending under control and debt, if any, to a minimum:

Have a plan. Make a list of who you’re shopping for, what items you hope to find and how much you intend to spend on each person. Stick to it! Your plan should call for you to start your shopping online, at least to compare prices and look for deals before you head for the stores. Avoid impulse purchases. And don’t wait until the last minute to start shopping; it’s a sure prescription to spend more.

Keep the use of credit to a minimum. If you must use it, put your charges on one credit card – the one with the lowest rate if you carry a balance. Remove all other cards from your purse or wallet. Don't apply for store cards just to snag onetime discounts. The ideal approach it to not charge a single item unless you can repay in full when your next bill arrives. At least set a target date to zero out the balance before you run one up.

Beware of special card offers. In addition to rewards and bonus deals, issuers are tempting consumers by offering incentives such as no-interest balance transfers, extra perks by meeting certain
spending levels and increased cash back in specified categories. Resist the bait. “No deal is a good deal if you can’t afford it,” says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Use layaway. Take advantage of the resurgence of holiday layaway programs. Retailers have lowered or waived fees this year that shoppers pay to participate in these interest-free, pay-over-time programs. With stores eager not to lose customers to the competition, debt-conscious consumers can snag gifts at attractive prices while not having to pay an extra fee just to avoid buying with their credit cards.

Get creative. Find it difficult to stick to a holiday spending budget? Give gift cards and make something personal to go with them. Or give experiences instead of “stuff” perhaps a shared hike, nature outing or special home-cooked meal. Or volunteer together at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or nursing home if your gift recipient doesn’t want more material items, suggests Pamela Yellen, a financial services consultant and personal finance author. The gifts people remember the most, as she points, are often free.