One weekend left for Christmas shopping. Be careful out there.

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I’m not a Grinch nor a Scrooge, but as a financial counselor, I also can’t muster up a hot mug of holiday joy this time of year — not when Americans are spending themselves into debt to buy gifts for loved ones.

The week before Christmas makes me the most nervous…

  • That’s when last-minute shoppers feel so pressured to check off the lingering items on their gift-giving list, they often overspend.
  • If they had a holiday budget, this is the moment when they exceed it.
  • If they’re buying online, they’re most likely to forget about identity theft.

Retailers realize they can profit from your desperation, so be wary of those last-minute deals. As has already reported this holiday season, “retailers are using price framing — or making savings appear bigger than they really are.”

What does that look like?

Retailers — both online and in-store — will showcase big discount numbers without telling you the final price. For example, if you are buying a new TV with a 25 percent discount, do you know how many dollars are taken off the original cost? Do you know what your final price will be?

Expect more such confusing practices now that time is running out. In your deadline-driven tizzy, you’re less likely to double-check if you’re getting a truly good deal.

Then there’s the danger of fraud.

Last month, reported that more than half of us “think fraud is just part of what happens when we shop online. We simply accept that we are going to get hacked and there’s nothing we can do about it. … Unfortunately, we care more about convenience than self-protection of our data.”

That attitude only grows as gift-giving time approaches. If you think retailers are going to cash in on your procrastination, you can be doubly sure that online thieves are looking for their own holiday gift this week — and you’re it. They know you’re distracted, and they’ll take advantage of that.

So I implore you to give yourself a gift right now: Read the Identity Theft Guide. Best of all, it’s free.

Finally, let me give you some advice on how to find the best, cheapest, yet most rewarding last-minute gifts.

Take it from a father and from a financial counselor who has worked with families struggling with debt. Your family and friends don’t want your money. They want your time. reported recently that 69 percent of us “would skip exchanging gifts this holiday season if friends and family agreed to do it” and 60 percent “would focus on time with friends and family instead.”

That means the most valuable present you can give is a handmade gift certificate for a free dinner or afternoon at the movies. Sound cheesy? Of course it is! Trust me, your family will adore cheesy.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve met that suffered from financial stress. One major source of stress: Parents who took second jobs to make ends meet, which meant they didn’t spend as much time as they wanted with their children.

Sadly, some of these parents worked extra hours to afford pricier gifts for their children — when all those children really wanted was more time with Mom and Dad.

If you’ve waited to the last minute this holiday season, how about putting your friends and your children first? Give the gift of you.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched I’m glad you’re here.

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