Image: Kids with presents
The best gift you can give your family is sound finances for the rest of the year.
updated 12/15/2010 7:46:06 AM ET 2010-12-15T12:46:06

Unemployment is high this year, and savings accounts are low. But that won't stop Americans from filling shopping carts with gifts this Christmas. With shopping a firmly entrenched holiday tradition, the average American will spend an average $715 this season — even if for some it's spending they can ill afford.

Before you head out to Target, Best Buy, Nordstrom or your local mall this holiday season, give yourself a big gift: restraint.

The reason so many people fail to show it is the intense social pressure to go out and spend this time of year. Plus the legion of ways people justify overspending. That's according to Shawn Young, creator of Bootstraps Asset Building Education, an organization that uses elements of behavioral economics to teach average Americans how to better handle their finances.

In his previous career as a manager at Wal-Mart and Starbucks, Young, now 41, saw many colleagues become overwhelmed by financial troubles that it distracted them from their work. The stories led to Young developing an interest in financial education. In 2007 he moved to Louiseville, Colo., and founded Advocates for Young Adults, a nonprofit which has since been renamed Frontier Asset Building. It has five employees, a $300,000 budget and, says Young, helped 10,000 people in 2010 through its various programs.

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One is a class on spending. In it, Young works primarily with people who have low and moderates incomes and are at risk of overspending in ways that can have devastating effects on their finances. If a student in one of his classes overspends at Christmas, that student might have trouble paying the January electric bill. People of greater means rationalize excessive spending in similar ways but generally face less devastating consequences, Young says.

Temptations are so great leading up to Christmas that some of Young's students this year suggested he offer a class addressing the season's shopping. While Young ponders the idea, he suggest others slow down while hitting the malls.

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"It is important to make every stop at the cash register, or online payment, a moment to check in with yourself," he says.

If you believe you're rationalizing a purchase you can't really afford, get out of line and take a walk. When you feel an impulse buy coming on, take 24 hours to think about it first. slideshow: How to avoid overspending at Christmas slideshow: Top 3-D products slideshow: HDTVs for every room and budget this holiday slideshow: Apps that help you manage your life

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