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George Doyle

The U.S. holiday-shopping season kicks off in earnest this Friday, when thousands of Americans storm stores in the wee hours of the night in search of bargains to put under the Christmas tree.

Here in Canada, the holiday marketing onslaught has begun and the hunt for deals is underway, even as household debt hits record highs. Nineteen per cent of the more than 1,000 Canadians polled by Angus Reid last month were most concerned about the amount of debt they would have by the end of the holiday season, while 16 per cent were worried about not having an emergency fund -- or an adequate one.

The survey, commissioned by ING Direct, found that Canadians in all income brackets are fretting about money. Among those who earn less than $50,000 a year, 21 per cent are most worried about paying their bills next year, while among those who earn more than $100,000, 18 per cent are most concerned about not being able to save enough for retirement.

In terms of financial priorities for 2012, 22 per cent of Canadians listed paying off credit cards and lines of credit, 17 per cent pointed to sticking to a budget and 14 per cent listed spending less money and saving more. Among those who earn less than $50,000 a year, 22 per cent said following a budget was their top priority.

Personal finance experts agree that drawing up a Christmas spending plan is key to not finding yourself in a financial hole come January. For tips on how to steer clear of holiday shopping debt - including avoid shopping on impulse or using credit to pay for purchases you can't immediately afford - see this Home Cents blog post.

A separate poll released Tuesday by RBC suggests the message of don't-buy-what-you-can't-afford is finally starting to get through. Among the Canadians surveyed by RBC, many said they intend to use money in hand to do their gift-buying, with 55 per cent planning to use cash while 27 per cent plan to use debit cards. More than a third, 37 per cent, plan to use credit cards to pay for holiday purchases.

The RBC survey also found that only 10 per cent of respondents said they hadn't yet thought about how to finance their holiday spending, compared to 20 per cent in 2010.

So how much are Canadians forking out for presents this year? The survey found that Canadian gift-givers are planning to spend an average of $640 on gifts, up from $624 last year. In 2010, one-third of holiday shoppers who went over budget spent an average of $429 more than they intended and ended up cutting back on entertainment, day-to-day living expenses, credit card use and coffee/lunch costs to make up the difference.

For those Canadians intent on driving across the border in search of Black Friday deals, check out some of the items you want to buy online first to verify the price here. Despite duties, brokerage fees and shipping costs, some of the toys and personal electronics could still be cheaper in Canada.

Make a list of stores you want to hit and try not to veer. If you go cross the border for just the day your personal exemption limit is $50. After that, duties will apply. If you stay for 48 hours the limit is $400. For more information on cross-border shopping, check out these tips.

If you have questions on how to avoid falling deeper into debt this holiday season, join us for a live online discussion with Janet Peddigrew, vice-president with Bank of Montreal in Kitchener-Waterloo, on Wednesday Nov. 23rd at 12 PM (ET). Ms. Peddigrew gave us these tips on how to live within your means back in August.

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