Most of us will soon start the hunt for holiday gifts for friends and family. We’d be smart to do whatever we can to avoid overspending.

“Many people try to approach shopping with a budget in mind, but they aren’t always following through,” says Courtney Jesperson, a shopping and retail analyst at NerdWallet. “That's the danger of the holidays, especially on Black Friday, when everything looks like it's on sale.”

According to a new survey by Consumer Reports, 34 percent of respondents said they spent more than they intended to during the holidays last year.

Sean McQuay, who analyzes credit card spending at NerdWallet, recommends a simple rule of thumb. “Look at your checking account and make sure it never goes below a certain amount,” he says. That amount should be high enough that it provides a cushion to avoid overdrawing your account and incurring overdraft fees.

Another option is to download an app to your smartphone to help you keep tabs on your spending or use a budgeting program. (Remember, virtually all websites and apps collect data on their users, which can be used for marketing and other purposes. You can improve your privacy by deleting apps that you no longer use, and by going to your phone's settings to control what data each app can access.)


Go to Consumer Reports' 2016 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.
 

Tools to Consider

Holiday-budget apps. A popular one is Santa’s Bag (shown above), which is free and work on iPhones. After entering a gift recipient’s name, you can create a budget line item and a gift list. As you purchase products, the app tracks how much you spent and how it matches up with your budget. The free version includes ads, but you can get rid of them by paying $2.99 for the “pro” version.

Several other holiday-specific apps offer similar tracking and budgeting services, such as the iOS app The Christmas Gift List (free, though you can pay $1.99 for an upgraded version) and the similarly named Android app, Christmas Gift List, which is free.

Budgeting apps. Holiday-budget apps can help keep gift-buying on track, but McQuay says full-fledged budgeting programs are a better option. His favorite is You Need a Budget, which you can download to an Android phone, an iPhone, the iPad on Apple Watch, or simply access on the web using a computer.

The program syncs your smartphone and desktop as well as with your accounts at financial institutions, which makes it easy to import financial transactions. The program costs $5 per month or $50 per year. McQuay recommends that consumers set up a holiday-spending category and create separate line items for family members and friends.

Another popular budget program is Mint, a free service from Quicken. It also downloads transactions from financial institutions, and includes a smartphone app.

Shopping apps. Year-round apps such as the price-comparison tool ShopSavvy are available for Windows, iOS, and Android-based smartphones and can help you save money while browsing, Jesperson says. She also recommends using retailer-specific apps such as Target’s Cartwheel, available for iOS and Android phones, which offers coupons that can’t be found elsewhere.