By the time Dec. 25 comes around, many shoppers will be faced not only with an overwhelming amount of desserts and holiday music, but additionally a sobering mountain of bills from department stores and credit card companies.

Regardless of the financial stress that awaits us, holiday shopping is as tied to the holiday season as the decorated trees, carolers, and colorful holiday sweaters. The average American family, according to the National Retail Federation, will spend $795 this holiday season.

But, according to Elizabeth Schomburg, senior vice president of the Family Credit Counseling Service in Rockford, Ill., that post-holiday financial stress can be avoided.

“The best time to start thinking about and planning for Christmas shopping is immediately after Christmas,” Schomburg said. “When shopping for decorations and gifts for the following year, the best prices are right after Christmas. Styles won’t change that drastically from the last year. So, start planning ahead and start shopping year round.”

However, according to the Family Credit Counseling Service’s Holiday Spending Research report released in October, more than 50 percent of Americans admitted they do not save for holiday expenses.

Typically, most shoppers begin their quest for gifts the Friday after Thanksgiving, which has famously become known as Black Friday. Though financial experts strongly recommend staying within a prescribed budget during the holiday season, Schomburg said the reality is that many don’t.

Take Elisa Orozco for example.

“I don’t do a whole, general budget,” Orozco said while shopping recently on Madison Street. “I started thinking about Christmas shopping kind of late, so I budget on more of an individual basis. Like, I know I am only going to spend so much on one person.”

Laurie Stokes also takes a more whimsical approach to financing her holiday shopping, however, her wallet doesn’t take the hit all at once.

“I don’t budget for the holiday season,” Stokes said. “But, I do shop year round. I look for gifts at any time. The only problem is I usually have trouble finding them when Christmas time comes around.”

A new shopping day has also come into play after Thanksgiving: Cyber Monday.

Cyber Monday is beginning to account for a large percentage of holiday shopping. According to Shop.org, 61 million people were expected to voyage to the virtual stores online, but Schomburg warns that despite the Internet’s ease and accessibility, there are some things to remember.

“You must watch the shipping fees,” Schomburg said. “A lot of the times the total price of the product, with shipping, will increase 25 or 50 percent. So make sure you investigate the shipping fees. You should also look for coupon codes online.”

Many shoppers continue to take the traditional route, venturing out to stores and malls to do battle with the long lines. The National Retail Federation expects that 65 percent of holiday shoppers will do some of their shopping at smaller, local stores.

Store owners and retailers are somewhat dependent on the shopping traditions of the holiday season, and according to several local sources, December sales are especially important for local businesses.

“Advertising campaigns and holiday preparations this time of year make it apparent that local merchants depend a great deal on holiday spending,” Laurie Kokenes, the executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, said. “So, it would stand to reason that December would be the top month for sales revenue.”

December may prove to be more than just the top month for sales revenue, but also a lifeline for many smaller and local merchants.

“We’re doing as much business now as we did last year, maybe even a little bit more, especially since the Holiday Walk” Janet Todd, from Todd and Holland Tea Merchant, said. “But, the holiday season is vital to our existence as a business. If that shopping season is not a good one, then we probably cannot remain in business.”

Tonya Hart from Two Fish Art Glass shares that sentiment.

“You shoot to make profit, but you never know,” Hart said. “We’re close to being on track, but December is very important.”

Holiday budgeting tips

Though only several days remain until Christmas, there is plenty of financial havoc to wreak. Schomburg offers these tips for the procrastinating shopper:

  • Keep receipts of purchases in case the item goes on sale. Stores may reimburse for the difference in prices.
  • Use the credit card with the lowest interest rate; usually not the department store's card.
  • When using a debit card, immediately write down purchases in your checkbook or on a note card as a visual reminder of what you've spent.
  • Gift cards are also a viable and popular option. According to National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $24.8 billion dollars on gift cards.
  • Exchanging gifts on New Year's gives people the chance to take advantage of after-Christmas sales.