PUBLISHED: 1:32 PM on Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Spirit of giving doesn't require expensive gifts
As each holiday season nears, it seems as though retail stores are gearing up for the holidays at an earlier time than previous years.

For those who don't want to incur a hefty bill at the end of the season, the holiday spirit of giving does not necessarily need to include extravagant gifts.

Instead, consider gifts from the heart that will save you money and create lasting memories for your family to share.

Consumers need to plan ahead and budget for the holiday season.

"It is the season of giving, but consumers need to be cautious that they don't take too much away from their own futures by piling up unmanageable credit card debts," said Mike Sullivan, director of education for Take Charge America.

"Give within your budget and you'll feel good about it on Christmas and in the future, or use creative ways to give that don't strain your finances."

For families in search of inexpensive holiday gift alternatives and activities, here are some tips and ideas.

Plan a family fun day

Check your local newspapers for holiday event listings and visit event Web sites for discounts and coupons. Many events offer family savings packages that may include kids-get-in-free days. Look for days that offer the best deals.

Contribute with service

Many non-profit organizations and local shelters are in need of volunteers, especially during the holiday season. Helping others in need by assisting at a soup kitchen, wrapping presents or making deliveries to families can be a heartwarming and life-changing experience your family will never forget.

Create a book of coupons

Each family member can create a book of coupons that may include redeemable items involving household chores such as, "One prepared dinner for the entire family," or "Walk the dog for a week." Coupons can be handwritten or designed on the computer.

Visit senior centers

Prepare baked goods and take them to your local senior center. Many people volunteer their time by reading holiday stories and spending time with the adults. Your companionship will be appreciated greatly and new friendships can be developed.

Prepare care packages

There are many U.S. troops overseas who will not be able to return home for the holidays this year. Check with reputable organizations for more information on how and where packages can be sent. Popular items may include holiday decorations, phone cards, instant or canned foods and drinks, and personal hygiene items. Also, consider companies that ship custom-ordered care packages.

Donate to a giving tree

In most cases, a children's age and gift wish is written on a card, which is then hung on an angel tree. For those who wish to donate, choose a card and then purchase and donate the gift to the child in need.