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I’d like to make a confession. I’m only half-way done with my Christmas shopping. Misery loves company so I guess this nugget should make me feel better: A Visa, Inc. survey shows that 77 percent of consumers haven’t finished their holiday shopping.

According to Visa’s press release, this can lead to rampant “panic shopping” over the next several days. Jason Alderman, Visa’s Senior Director of Global Financial Education, says, “When shoppers panic, they throw money at the problem and often overspend to get a gift—any gift—in time for the holidays.”

Okay, I’ll make another confession (my last confession until 2012) and say that I’ve been a “panic shopper” in the past. But not anymore. I have a few rules that I stick to and that keeps me from freaking out and overspending on a tablet or home theater system.

Whether you’re shopping for Christmas or Hanukkah, panic shopping can lead to serious credit card debt. So get rid of the deer-in-the-headlights look and keep these four tips in mind:

#1: Check your budget totals. This assumes you made a holiday budget, but if you didn’t, do it before you buy one more thing. Take a look at the total amount and subtract what you’ve already spent on the holidays. So if your budget is $750 and you’ve spent $450, then you can only spend $300 the rest of the way. Shopping without a budget will make you end up in credit card debt in January.

#2: Make a list of who’s left to shop for. Decide how much you can spend on each person given how much is left in the holiday kitty. Now…stick to that number! If you’re out of funds, create a colorful “IOU” in Power Point and offer a free lunch in January. This won’t work well with kids, but it should work well with any adult on your list. Or bake something. My neighbors sent over banana-oatmeal-chocolate muffins and I swear that’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

#3: Get online and find the best prices. Don’t run yourself ragged going from store to store. At this point, stores will be running out of popular items. Go to store websites and see if the item you want is in stock before you drive over there. You really will panic if you’re wasting a whole day driving around in search of something that’s no longer on a shelf anywhere.

#4: Improvise if you have to. If you can’t get the gift you planned on for someone, switch gears and pick something else. Years ago, Tickle Me Elmo was The Gift that every self-respecting toddler, including my three-year-old, had to have. I was pretty panic-stricken when I was told that the toy would not be available again until mid-January.

I decided to get a Tickle Me Big Bird instead, which turned out to be The Back-up Gift of that particular season. I got lucky because my three-year-old loved it. Sometimes you have to improvise and hope for the best. But keep the receipt, just in case the recipient wants to exchange it in January.

Image: disparkys, via Flickr.com

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