'Tis the Season of Spending

A few tips on how to survive the holidays without going broke.

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shopping

Nov. 28, 2008--In a recent Kmart commercial, a man asks, "Didn't we just carve pumpkins?" as his wife happily rushes off to get a jump on her holiday shopping. The spot, which started airing before Halloween, makes light of the fact that enticements to holiday spending seem to start earlier each year. Retailers are scrambling to make the best of a sour economy, wooing consumers with glossy gift guides and promotions like layaway.

But if throwing away money on baubles, bags and gifts your loved ones don't need or already have is not giving you that same old jolt of joy this year, here are some alternatives to your typical holiday-induced shopping binge.

Give now

Do your part to help those who are hungry and needy. A 2007 Census survey reported 13 percent of Americans living in poverty, with blacks nearly double that at 24.7 percent. And that was before the current economic meltdown. While the change you drop in the Salvation Army bucket is appreciated, there are a number of other ways you can help those in need. There are several organizations that work to clothe, feed and house people who could use your help this year.

Through its network of 63,000 local charities, hunger-relief organization Feeding America assists 25 million people each year. The organization provides a food bank locator on its Web site to help donors and volunteers find food banks close to their homes. Toys for Tots, now in its 61st year, distributes toys to millions of needy children across the country each year.

In lieu of a monetary donation, you can volunteer at a youth center or retirement home, or with any organization that caters to an issue you're passionate about. And why not make it a family affair? Organize a volunteer outing with relatives to provide meals or winter essentials to those in need, or find a way for your children to deliver gifts to kids their age who are less fortunate than they are. It's a meaningful twist on the family gift swap.

Give later

Pay it forward. People dig into their pockets to help others at the tail end of the year, but the need does not disappear when the Christmas tree is thrown out and the ornaments are packed away. Many charitable groups see a sharp decline in donations after the holidays, and warm months can be lean times.

Groups like United Way raise much of their program funding during the holidays, then stretch those dollars throughout the year. Food pantry stocks dwindle in the summer months, and already-struggling families who turn to them have a bigger burden when kids are no longer in school receiving free or reduced-price meals.

So set aside some money, goods or time for spring or summer giving. You can even set a personal pledge—a small amount you'll set aside each month between now and, say, May, for a mid-year donation. Local charities and branches of national ones hold fundraising events near you throughout the year, and of course, donations are accepted year-round. If you want to donate time, Volunteer Match can find places for you to volunteer based on your skills and interests.