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Holiday shoppers are bracing for more financial strain this year. Here are 3 ways to prepare

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The end of the year doesn’t just bring autumn leaves and jack-o’-lanterns, then mistletoe and the chance of snow — it can also bring on financial distress.

Nearly half of all consumers say their financial standing fluctuates seasonally, and December is the most cited month for experiencing financial distress, followed by November and January, according to a report by LendingClub Corporation and PYMNTS Intelligence.

Meanwhile, 54% of holiday shoppers expect to feel financially burdened this year, anticipating overall high costs, according to a recent Bankrate survey.

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These statistics notwithstanding, holiday shoppers who start saving early for year-end purchases set themselves up for financial success, experts say.

“You still have a few months and still have the opportunity to stock away some savings so that you’re not going into credit card debt,” said Ted Rossman, a Bankrate senior industry analyst.

‘Deals start early’ for holiday shoppers

Nearly all Americans, 92%, are cutting back on their overall spending in some way, according to a CNBC and Morning Consult survey.

To that point, many are already getting ahead of holiday expenses. Half of holiday shoppers plan to begin, or have already begun, making purchases before Halloween, according to Bankrate.

While some people may gripe about seeing Christmas trees in stores while it’s still 90 degrees out in some areas, “the fact that these sales have started early is an advantage,” said Rossman.

Some retailers are even debuting holiday discounts early. Target released members-only price cuts Oct. 1 and Best Buy did the same Oct. 2, while Amazon and Walmart are expected to do so Oct. 9-12, he added.

“The fact that deals start early allows you to research the best options and spread out your cashflow,” said Rossman.

It’s best to pay now, fly later

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Booking holiday airfare is cheaper in October, as well. Domestic round-trip fares over Thanksgiving are averaging $268 per ticket, down 14% compared to last year. For Christmas, prices are about $400 round trip, down 12% from last year, per Hopper data.

Shoppers looking into traveling for the holidays should book their flights by Oct. 14, Hopper lead economist Hayley Berg previously told CNBC.

Buy gifts for friends and loved ones throughout the year to spread out the cost, said certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan, founder of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. Additionally, if you have a particular gift in mind, keep an eye out for good year-end sales.

Overall, think through what your gift-giving budget should be ahead of time, so it doesn’t create a  financial strain. 

“Starting early is better because that last-minute shopping ends up being very reactionary,” said McClanahan, who’s also a member of CNBC’s Financial Advisor Council. “You end up spending more and buying less thoughtful gifts than if you actually put in the work on that front.”

3 ways to get ahead of holiday spending

Here are a few ways holiday shoppers can start preparing:

  1. Start setting money aside. Save a portion of every paycheck between now and the end of the year. Banks’ “Christmas Clubs” are separate, short-term savings accounts where consumers accumulate savings for holiday shopping and expenses, said McClanahan. If not opening a Christmas Club account, consider “parking your money” in short-term savings options that have high liquidity and benefit from high interest rates, such as money market funds.
  2. Be careful with credit cards. You can reap credit card rewards and benefits so long as you pay each card off by the end of the month. Otherwise, you risk stacking on additional debt for discretionary spending, especially as the average credit card rate is more than 20%, a record high. “We definitely want to avoid that,” added Rossman.
  3. Take stock of unused gift cards. About half, 47%, of Americans have at least one unused gift card, and the average value is almost $200 per person, Bankrate found. Shoppers should “take stock of unused gift cards,” as they could give a head start in holiday shopping, said Rossman.

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