If this thought haunts your dreams and plagues your thoughts, fear not. Flush those dreams, not dollars, down the drain. All you have to do is plan ahead.
"Arm yourself with information ahead of time -- do your research -- not just on prices but on product quality, as well," says Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World and renowned consumer advocate. "After all, getting a deal on a lousy product is no bargain."
When it comes to planning for the holidays -- from buying gifts to mapping out holiday travel and everything in between -- the key to locking down a good bargain starts with molding a simple strategy: start early; set a budget; and stay vigilant.
Clarky Davis (aka the Debt Diva), with CareOne Credit Counseling, adds that starting small is just as important as starting early in ensuring secured savings rather than unsecured debt.
"Looking at a big fixed number I have to achieve (in budgeting) is intimidating," explains Davis. "Try to look at saving as a small daily thing."
Davis' strategy for beating the budgeting blues is to put away small amounts of money early on. Setting aside just a few dollars a day, starting now, can net a lot of money by the time the holidays roll around next year. Throwing your daily loose change into a coin jar every day is another Davis tip to building the budget bundle.
Both Davis and Dworsky agree, though, that it takes more than just setting aside a little dough to sweeten the holiday pot. Serious savings start with serious strategy, and they've got the tips for making it a cinch.
SAVVY SURFING: Whether it's preparing for the perennial Black Friday, planning a holiday trip or finding the best deals on the best products, the Internet can prove invaluable in saving both time and money.
Sites recommended by Dworsky include http://www.DealAlerter.com, a site that notifies shoppers of price drops in their planned purchases; Slickdeals.net and FatWallet.com, which dial shoppers into bargains that go widely unadvertised; PriceSpider.com, which allows shoppers to check price histories of popular items; and PriceGrabber.com for checking out Black Friday deals before the circulars come out. Davis recommends http://www.bargainist.com and http://www.RueLaLa.com to sign up for e-mail alerts on frugal online savings.
Travel plans are made easy with Orbitz and Travelocity, whose Web sites not only let you comparison shop on airfares and hotel rates but also offer e-mail notifications when the travel prices you've budgeted for become available.
SPELLING OUT SAVINGS STARTS WITH THE LETTER R. Davis' "R" list comprises reality, responsibility and restraint, while research is a Dworsky standby.
"Accepting what is really in your budget is the first step to avoid overspending," Davis says. "Responsibility is adjusting your behavior according to what you have, not what you want, and restraint is discipline." Budget vigilance is paramount to bagging the bargains.
"Researching a product entirely, from reading professional reviews in Consumer Reports to reading consumer product reviews at places like Amazon.com, allows you to make smart decisions about products ahead of time, so you're not under the gun when it's time to buy," explains Dworsky.
Other tips for securing scrumptious savings include:
*Get creative: Handmade gifts are not only thoughtful but also frugal and are a great way to bring friends and family together on fun projects, to boot.
*Stay organized: Keep track of your purchases so you don't buy the same thing twice, and keep track of what you paid for an item. Many local retailers offer price-matching guarantees; keep your receipts handy and your store circulars at hand.
*Put down the plastic, and pick up the cash. Many major retailers, such as Kmart and Marshalls, offer layaway programs, eliminating interest fees. Check your local retailers for similar programs.
*Get gift receipts. In the event a gift you purchased isn't the right gift, a gift receipt allows the recipient to trade in on the purchase price rather than risk settling for post-holiday-sale prices or items.
*Avoid purchasing gift cards, if possible. If you prefer the gift card approach, make sure that it's from a reputable retailer and that hidden charges aren't fixed to the card, or choose a card that can be redeemed for practical purchases, e.g., movie tickets, coffee treats or groceries.
*Consider new holiday traditions. A nice holiday breakfast can be just as festive as a yuletide dinner with all the trimmings, but at a fraction of the cost. What about drawing one name out of a hat rather than buying gifts for several people?
Whatever your strategy, whether it's starting small to save big or surfing the Net for the latest finds, the bargains are there for the taking, as long as you plan ahead.