FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The holiday season can often produce financial strain for families, but proper planning can help reduce the spending stress.

However, according to Mike Burden, Army Community Service accredited financial counselor, families don't often have a plan.

"Regrettably, many of us do not have a spending plan for holiday spending," he said. "We do not budget for purchases and usually spend more than expected. The typical American family spends approximately 1 percent of annual income on holiday shopping. Stick to that guideline to ensure your purchases are not spinning out of control.

"Unfortunately, some use credit cards, emergency funds and retirement funds to purchase gifts," he added. "This practice usually causes additional holiday stress, and this stress can continue until we have replenished our emergency fund and paid off our holiday debts."

Burden said an important and viable way to save money during the holidays is to plan ahead, set a practical limit and stay on budget.

"Of course, this takes self-discipline," he said. "One method is to start our holiday savings plan in January for the October through December buying events. Many consumers establish a special savings account for this purpose and pay themselves first by making monthly deposits into the 'holiday account.'

"Prior to establishing this account, consumers set a limit on holiday spending so they will have a savings goal for the holidays," he added. "It may also help if we have an agreement with our partner or another family member to keep you both from overspending. Don't forget to budget for holiday travel, postage for Christmas cards, and holiday party favors and home decorations. Remember, the less we spend on holiday gifts, the more we will have to fund other important financial goals."

Proper planning and sticking to a budget are the best methods for avoiding financial stress during the holiday season, but Burden offered additional tips to consider while shopping.

"Another way to save money during the holidays is to purchase gifts throughout the year during sales events," he said. "We can save by making purchases on our holiday shopping lists during special events including Labor Day, Memorial Day, tax free days, Black Friday and other special sale days prior to the holiday season.

"Additionally, many are making holiday gifts themselves," he added. "This practice not only saves money, but also provides the recipient with a unique gift and the appreciation that someone cares enough to take their time to make a gift especially for them. Also, during the holidays, some people make an extra batch of cookies, brownies, or other baked goods to give to neighbors and friends."

Burden urged caution when using credit to make purchases during the holiday season.

"During the holiday season, financial counselors usually implore us to use credit sparingly and cautiously, especially if we are predisposed to last-minute holiday buying," he said. "If we follow the advice above, using credit for purchases during the holidays should be minimal. Also, since credit is a convenient way to track spending, many prefer using credit over cash. Additionally, some prefer using credit cards because the purchase can be challenged if the service or product does not meet expectations, or is defective or damaged during shipment. However, if using credit instead of cash, remember to stay within budget and pay off the balance during the grace period prior to interest being charged. Use your rewards card or the card that offers the lowest interest rate."

If Soldiers and family members are experiencing financial hardship, they may contact the ACS financial readiness program or Army Emergency Relief at 255-9631 and 255-2341 for assistance.

The post chapel also offers a financial program beginning in January. To register, contact the chapel at 255-3274.

"Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, keeping the holiday's spiritual message is a good antidote to the holiday stressors and gimmes," Burden said. "Instead of spending weekends leading up to Christmas with online shopping or in the mall, it might be a lot better gift to spend our time with our family and save money for more important purchases or for giving to those less fortunate."