(BPT) - It may be the season of joy, but for many Americans, the holidays can also be a time of great stress - particularly when it comes to gift-giving and shopping.
Because many Americans wait until the final week or two before Christmas to make their holiday purchases, shopping can become a nightmare. The potential results can include long lines, anxiety over the arrival of an online delivery or missing out on the hot new toy of the season.
In addition, the holiday season is a prime time for thieves and scammers. Consumers need to take extra care to protect their identity and avoid having their credit cards and holiday purchases ripped off.
If you're among the millions of Americans who want to experience a safer, less stressful holiday season, consider these tips from FindLaw.com, a the nation's leading source of free online legal information:
* Make a budget. Spending more than you should can take the fun out of the holiday season. This year, make a budget and stick to it. Communicate your goal of staying on budget to your immediate family, and encourage them to do the same.
* Keep a list of important information. Create a list of your credit cards, including important information such as the credit card number, expiration date, name on the card and the customer service hotline. Print out the list and keep it in a secure place at home so you or a family member can access it quickly if a card is lost or stolen.
* Compare prices and terms. Before you commit to a lay-away plan, double-check the extra charges that some plans charge versus the cost of simply paying for an item with your credit card.
* Shop year round. Reduce last-minute shopping stress and save a bundle on your holiday gift-buying by shopping sales throughout the year. Or, switch your gift giving to the week after Christmas to cash in on all the post-holiday sales.
* Save receipts. Many stores require receipts to return an item or to obtain a refund. As you shop, put receipts in your pocketbook or wallet, and when you get home, store them in an envelope for safekeeping. If you shop online, print off a receipt and the shipping information to track your delivery.
* Double-check return policies on year-end sales. Smaller and independent stores may mark a sale item as a final sale - meaning no return.
* Safeguard your identity. Only shop at reputable online retailers at this time of year. If a deal appears to be too good to be true, it probably is. When shopping retail, don't let your credit card or identification such as a driver's license out of your sight. Carefully track your credit card purchases. If you notice purchases on your account that you don't recall making, alert your credit card company immediately.
* Avoid being a target. Don't leave holiday purchases in your car's front seat or in easy view of thieves at the shopping mall. It's better to store them in the trunk or in a less-conspicuous location in your vehicle. At home, don't leave holiday purchases, as well as your wallet or purse, near the front door for easy picking by a thief.
* Be aware of your surroundings. Holiday shopping often means going out when it's dark. Try to park in a well-lit location and invite a friend to shop with you. When you head to your car, have your keys ready. If you feel uncomfortable, ask a store employee or security personnel to accompany you.
* Follow company policies. Many people like to shop online at work, but it pays to be aware of your employer's Internet use policies and know what is and isn't permissible. And note that some companies use sophisticated software to track inappropriate Internet usage by employees.
* Bag it. Don't throw boxes of newly opened items out on the street, next to the garbage. This could be an advertisement that there's a lot of brand-new, expensive merchandise in your home. Instead, cut up boxes, especially for high-ticket items, and bag them up in the garbage or toss them into your recycling bin.
For more tips on how to have a safe and stress-free holiday shopping season, visit FindLaw.com.