11/25/2013 02:00 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

'Tis the Season ... for Responsible Shopping

The days are shorter and frost is in the air. It's time for Americans to retreat to the warmth and comfort of their traditional holiday gathering places ... otherwise known as shopping malls.

Of course, those holidays are not the ones you could expect to find in a Dickens story. These days, Thanksgiving and Christmas compete for attention with Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other holiday shopping events. If you follow the stories of people lining up at midnight to start shopping -- or especially if you believe the advertising hype -- you would get the impression that America is a nation without a financial care in the world, so eager to shop that people will get up in the middle of the night to do it.

Underneath though, there is a darker reality. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, and wage increases have been meager. The holiday season may bring inducements to spend, but for many Americans, a longer-term reality is pressuring them to cut back. Learning to reconcile these two forces may be key to a happy holiday this year.

Doing more with less

You can indulge your holiday giving instincts while also living up to your financial responsibilities if you learn to do more with less. Here are five suggestions for spending responsibly this holiday season:

  1. Get savings out of harm's way. With interest rates so low, there generally is not a huge incentive to shift money from checking accounts to savings accounts these days. In fact, for most of the year, keeping more money in checking accounts may be cost-effective if it qualifies you for waivers of maintenance fees. However, around holiday shopping season, restricting access to money by putting more of it in a savings account or even a certificate of deposit may be the first step toward spending less.
  2. Start with a budget. Don't start by thinking about what you want to buy -- start by figuring out what you can comfortably afford to spend. Then make a gift-giving plan that fits within that budget.
  3. Make your list ... and check it twice. Once you make a list within the constraints of that budget, it's time to start checking on where to get the best deals. Even if you prefer to buy things in person, some advance research online can save you time and money.
  4. Choosing delivery or pick-up can be key. Things often look cheaper online, but when you factor in delivery costs, it may turn out to be cheaper to buy them in person. Use strategies to minimize delivery costs, such as consolidating online purchases so your order is large enough to qualify for free delivery offers. Another approach is to shop online at stores that also have a brick-and-mortar presence and offer the option of ordering online but picking up your items in-store.
  5. Give the gift of time. If you are feeling the financial pinch, chances are you have friends and family who feel the same way. Plan informal get-togethers in lieu of gifts -- spending time with loved ones can do more to put you in the holiday spirit than simply exchanging packages.

Perhaps financial reality will force Americans to take a less commercial view of the holidays this year. It may not be by choice, but they may find it worthwhile in the end.