Saving MoneyNow that the madness of Black Friday is behind us, 2011’s holiday shopping season is finally underway. Some truly amazing products have been released this year, making it harder than ever to choose what to spend our hard earned dollars on. Can’t think of what to get this holiday season? Check out our Gift Guides to help you get started.

While it’s important to devise a budget plan during any month of the year, it can be especially easy to go overboard during the holiday season. Post-Thanksgiving sales really get our herd’s juices flowing, and we’re not alone, either – American consumers spent a whopping $52.4 billion over this past Black Friday weekend alone, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

So how can you prepare to avoid racking up mountains of debt come January? Shop smart, but first plan ahead.

Do Research and Plan Your Attack

This should go without saying, but use technology to your advantage before you start spending! The entire internet is at your disposal, so go online, research products, ask questions, and compare prices before you hit the stores.  And then consider hitting the keyboard instead of the streets: Not only is the Web a convenient alternative to store-hopping, but it’s becoming more and more popular among consumers. Online sales were up 33 percent this Cyber Monday over last year, a Washington Post report said.

In addition, a separate NRF report recently revealed that smartphone owners are beginning to use their devices to not only compare retail prices in stores, but track down customer reviews, specs and stock availability.

You can always go the old-school route, too. Look for print ads in the Sunday newspaper, as they can be a great tool when planning your purchases. Print ads are a great way to do research on products as well because offer a quick way to weigh the pros and cons of multiple items. They’re also a convenient way to compare offers from different retailers, including price, features, and warranty.

Shop Smart

One of the bigger causes of money mismanagement over the holidays is the impulse buy. It happens to everyone, the purchase you hadn’t even considered and are suddenly paying for with plastic. With deals like the $200 Kindle Fire out there, some products are downright irresistible; nobody understands that more than us here at TechnoBuffalo. But don’t let the bright lights and fancy advertising affect your decision-making. As tempting as it is seeing those flashy red ON SALE stickers next to that awesome TV you’ve been coveting, picking up a flat screen on impulse may not be the best idea. Devise a shopping list – what you need and who gets what – and stick to the plan: If it’s not on the list, don’t buy it.

In addition, many retailers have adopted price-match strategies to attract more customers. Remember Walmart’s Price Guarantee? If you saw that same TV elsewhere for $75 less, ask if the store can match – or beat – the other retailer’s price. A little negotiating never hurts!  Aggressive price-matching is a great benefit for consumers. For one, you’re guaranteed to get the lowest price. And two, you might save a bit on gas by not going from store to store if you can use the Web to find prices in need of matching. Plus, you’ll save time by fulfilling all your needs in one place, whether it be Best Buy, Target or Walmart.

Use a Prepaid Card to Stay on Budget

While we’re on the subject of impulse buying, try to set a realistic budget. It’s a lot easier than you think to rack up a big bill with many small purchases. Before you buy, think, “Will they really like this as a gift, or am I just buying it because it’s cheap?” An easy way to remedy this problem is by using a prepaid card. Essentially, you add money  up front- say $100 – and use then use the card like you would a debit card. Once your balance has run out, you can’t use the card again unless you refill it, making the task of sticking to a budget more doable. The advantage here is that there is no overspending, overdraft fees or potential negative impact on your credit score, all of which is good for your financial bottom line.

If you’re curious, check out what American Express  have to offer in the way of prepaid cards, for starters. They let you set a budget and stick to it. After all, you can’t spend anymore then you put on the card!

These are just a few tips and suggestions to keep in mind when shopping this holiday season. 2011 has been a great year tech, and there’s no better time then the holidays to get (or ask for) that tablet, smartphone or console you’ve been eyeing. Just remember to stick to a plan and, above all, shop smart and only purchase what you can afford.

Have any shopping tips? Share them in the comments!

Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo received prepaid American Express card for compensation.