Guilt-Free Gift Giving

Marketing research company ComScore reported that online credit card purchases reached $29.1 billion in the 2009 holiday season—much of which was probably racked up as debt. So chicas, put those credit cards back in your wallets and follow these gift-buying tips:

1.  Be picky with your gift-giving list. Do you really need to give every close friend a gift? If they’re your true friends, they’ll understand. Why don’t you all get together for a potluck instead? Or set up a Secret Santa–style gift exchange, where you’re each assigned one person to give a present to (this can also work well with big families).

2.  Come up with a spending plan. Sit down and make a list of how much you can spend on each person. My financial adviser once told me to set a spending limit: That year, I wasn’t going to spend more than $30 per person (it can be less or more, depending on your financial state). A budgeting website such as Mint .com can help you make this plan.

3.  Be creative. For the people who do make it onto your list, Maria  Rodriguez, a certified financial plan­ner in Fresno, suggests trying “smart-giving.” Give the gift of time, for instance: offer your sister and brother-in-law a night of babysitting so they could have a date night. Score! Cook a friend dinner, or take her out for an inexpensive mani-pedi. Bake cookies for everyone on your list and place them in a pretty basket or decorative tin.

4. Once you get through the holidays, you might want to start thinking about next year. Hello, after-Christmas sales! There will be plenty of bathrobes, perfumes and scarves available for a fraction of what you would have paid for them before Christmas.

Just remember: Only buy gifts with money you have, so next year you can start saving early. Many banks and credit unions offer special accounts specifically for this purpose.

Nancy Trejos is a staff writer for The Washington Post and the author of Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink it Too (Business Plus, $14).