12/24/2010 03:53 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Shop Smarter -- And Smaller -- This Christmas

Americans tend to over-consume, which is especially true over the holidays -- from gorging ourselves on Christmas cookies to spending ourselves into debt on presents. Not to sound too Grinch-like, but the real challenge this time of year isn't dealing with in-laws or finding the perfect gift for your niece -- it's restraining yourself from going on a buying bender that you'll still be working to pay off when next December rolls around. Though the loving, altruistic motivation behind gift-giving is wonderful, the effect of gift-buying is less so. The startling fact is, Americans now have less saved in the bank than at any other point since the Great Depression; we also carry more credit card debt than ever before, with the average person owing nearly $8,000. Combined, those are putting us in a pretty deep hole, but one we could certainly dig out of (we're Americans, for God's sake!), with a little belt-tightening. But rather than slowly work our way out of debt, this Black Friday we set all-time spending records.

For a chapter of my book, "Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn't Going Better," I spent 24 hours inside the Mall of America. I wasn't the only tourist there: the Mall receives more visitors every year than the Grand Canyon, Disney World, and Graceland combined, and is especially crowded during the Christmas season. In one guest guide, its supporters even boast, "If you can't find what you're looking for here, America doesn't have it." While I checked out its 520 stores, I spoke to casual mall-walkers, admitted compulsive shoppers and various experts who study mall design, spending and happiness, and grilled them about the best ways to shop for holiday gifts that won't leave you over-spent.

First, shop at a boutique, not a mega-mall. Not only are you supporting local business rather than chains, but you'll likely end up spending less. Big malls might seem convenient, but shoppers have been shown to drop more money when there are more stores. Spending also increases the longer you're in the mall, ticking up at about one dollar for every minute you're there.

Second, don't shop when you're feeling blue, which many people do over the holidays. Harvard researchers found that sad shoppers are willing to pay four times as much for the same item as when they're not sad (authors of the study say that by purchasing something of high value, the buyers are trying to assert their own value). So get happy before you head out to holiday shop. Though the experts didn't specifically say this, I recommend blasting the "Glee" Christmas album while drinking warm cider.

Or best yet, skip the stuff completely (don't most of us have enough junk already?) and spend the money on a trip. It doesn't have to be a week at a luxe Caribbean hotel to count; a weekend away somewhere nearby can have a similar effect. Spending money on experiences rather than on objects is a proven happiness booster for both yourself and the recipient because researchers say that positive memories of experiences tend to hold up better than furniture or clothes. Ten years from now, your niece is far more likely to remember the time you took her for a day of ice skating and high tea than some long-outgrown argyle sweater you bought her.