Keep your finances in the black this Thanksgiving weekend

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Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season-and for many consumers, is the kickoff for holiday shopping. In fact, the day after Thanksgiving is commonly known as "Black Friday," because retailers typically go from being unprofitable (in the "red") to profitable (in the "black"). According to the ShopperTrak National Retail Sales Estimate (NRSE), last year's Black Friday sales totaled nearly $10.3 billion. Retailers aren't expecting this year's numbers to be as strong, but many have plans to slash prices further, in an effort to draw bigger crowds.

Unfortunately, beginning the holiday shopping season by blowing your budget can lead to debt that lingers well into the New Year. There are many ways to keep costs down and, as usual, the most important one is to plan ahead. To help create a smart spending plan to take you from Black Friday through the holidays, consider the following tips.

Start with a thrifty and tasteful meal. Start the holiday off right by keeping Thanksgiving meal costs in check. Consider making your meal potluck-guests are typically more than happy to bring a dish to share. Keep your eyes open for coupons and specials at nearby grocery stores. Also, avoid expensive name brands when it really won't make a difference.

Develop a plan. Thrifty holiday shopping requires a plan. First, figure out who's on your gift list and determine how much you plan to spend for each person. To prevent the urge to overspend, use cash and leave your credit cards at home. Realize that the holidays involve more expenses than just gifts. In fact, studies show that consumers should budget more than $500 for non-gift expenses such as travel, entertaining and decorations.

Consider cyber-shopping. When done correctly, shopping online can help-you will save a lot of time and comparison shopping is a breeze. You won't be alone - comScore reports that online retail spending in 2007 was strong on both Thanksgiving Day (up 29 percent to $272 million) and "Black Friday" (up 22 percent to $531 million), outpacing the season-to-date growth rate. Do be cautious when shopping online: Most online purchases are made with a credit card so be sure to monitor your spending and your balances.

Think outside the mall. Get creative. Great gifts don't necessarily have to cost a lot of money. Make homemade jam, pick flowers from your garden or assemble a photo album. Give vouchers good for five hours of yard work, ten back rubs, or a weekend of baby-sitting. You can access our Web site to create free personalized gift certificates at .

Lastly, remember that holiday memories should last a lifetime. The spirit of the season is far more important than the monetary value of the gifts you give.