by: Michael Kabel

Every year the holiday shopping season seems to grow a little bigger - it's a few days longer, the sales possibly get a little bigger and more enticing, and the must-have gifts grow slightly more expensive. America's been on an upward spending spiral for years now, and there's possibly no end in sight.

The typical American family already spends more on holiday shopping than it can afford. And in an economy with epidemic levels of credit card debt, extending the family finances presents only more trouble further down the line.

No one likes to be a holiday curmudgeon, but there are ways to shave spending down so that the end of the holidays isn't the end of the family's emotional security. Presented below are five ways to keep your head and tighten your belt through the new year.

Trim or cut out expenditures elsewhere during the month of December.

We've put this one near the top of the list because it's probably the most difficult. As you spend money on gifts and presents, don’t spend money elsewhere. No more eating out or going to the movies every weekend. If you're out shopping all day, discipline yourself to have dinner at home rather than at the food court or in a nearby restaurant.

There are almost certainly plenty of free entertainments during the holiday season, ranging from church choir performances to public parks to Christmas pageants, all of which can take the place of costlier diversions. The money you save goes right into the shopping fund.

Shop online - but shop early!

Online shopping is convenient in that it helps eliminate the time and money burned on going to store after store looking for gifts. Just make sure to follow the three online shopping commandments:
- Verify the online store's legitimacy; 
- Inspect online safety tools and security before giving out your credit card number; 
- Order early enough for timely delivery, and understand the online store's shipping and return policies.

Online shopping has become just as varied (if not more so) than traditional shopping, providing you use search engines and good criteria to find the must-have gift you're looking for. It's also more comfortable than hours on your feet in a shopping mall. And if nothing else, just think of the money you’ll save on gasoline!

Make a spending plan - and stick to it!

If this one seems like run-of-the-mill advice, consider how few people actually manage to accomplish it each year, despite some 24-karat good intentions.

Keep a record of what you spend every day, and don't go over it. Figure out in advance how much you'll spend on each family member's gifts, and how many gifts you can buy with each amount. If you go over by a few dollars, that's fine - but don't buy anymore if you can possibly help it.

It might be tough limiting yourself to a set amount for your children. Remember that you're trying to avoid debt that can limit your resources for them all the rest of the year.

Negotiate spending caps and deferrals with relatives and spouses

Your spouse, significant other or family members are also probably looking to save money. Why not work together? Talk to your siblings, spouse, parents, or anyone else you feel is appropriate about setting spending limits. Then, make sure your gift doesn't exceed the agreed upon amount, and vice versa.

Gift deferrals are also a valuable money-saving idea, if you've got the discipline for them. Just agree to wait to exchange gifts another time with your "spending partner." You might wait and get your spouse an extra-special Valentine's Day present, for example, or treat them to a spectacular birthday celebration. The money that's saved might go towards the children, or simply kept in reserve for after the holidays.

Make your own gifts and presents

It's often said the best gifts don't come retail. You may have an arts & crafts hobby that allows you to make gifts far more personal than anything available in stores. Or, you might know of a way to customize or personalize your presents that can be done more cheaply than buying a comparable item. Either way works fine, and the extra personal touch can go a long way towards making a simple gift quite a bit more unique.

Homemade gifts are sentimental favorites, and they're great especially for spouses and close relatives. As long as the recipient understands the emotion behind them and doesn't just see the thriftiness, the homemade gift is possibly the best kind.