-- With holiday sales expected to reach $ 616.9 billion this year -- a 4.1-percent increase over 2013 -- according to the National Retail Federation, retailers will be pulling out all the stops to get you to spend more money than you initially planned.
It's easy to get carried away with the spirit of the season and to overspend when shopping for gifts. Here are six ways you can bust your budget without even trying.
Don't make a list
And don't check it twice. If you don't know for whom you're shopping or how much you're going to spend, you're basically playing Russian roulette with your finances -- maybe you'll have enough to cover your costs and maybe you won't.
"The easiest way to avoid overspending is to sit down and make a list of everyone you are going to buy a gift for," says Jan Dahlin Geiger, author of "Get Your Assets in Gear! Smart Money Strategies."
"Decide first how much money you are willing to spend overall, then make an allocation by person."
Of course, you've got to stick to the list for it to work. If you find a great deal and can buy the perfect gift while spending less than your allotted amount on the person, don't rush to spend the money you saved -- consider yourself ahead of the game.
Act like Santa Claus
Sometimes we get carried away with the spirit of the season and start buying gifts for friends and relatives we haven't seen in years. Once you've made your list of people you want to buy gifts for, and the amount of money you intend to spend, don't change it.
Inevitably, someone you didn't plan to buy a gift for will buy one for you. But Geiger says, "Just because someone else gives you a gift doesn't mean you are obliged to reciprocate. If you feel strongly about doing something to acknowledge the generosity of others, come up with another way to do so that doesn't require spending a lot of money. Bake a huge batch of cookies or brownies and give them to those you feel obligated to give a gift to, but don't really want to."
Or, head off that problem in the beginning by suggesting to friends and family members that everyone refrain from exchanging gifts this year and plan to spend time together after the holidays instead.
Go overboard with gift cards
If you think giving loved ones gift cards so they can find items that appeal to their own tastes seems like a great idea, you're not alone. "Many of us spend more on a gift card than we would otherwise because it says the dollar amount right on the card," says Sally Herigstad, author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills."
With consumers spending an average of $213 per year on gift cards, according to GiftCards.com, not only could you likely save money by finding a more sentimental -- and less expensive -- gift, you may save your loved ones money as well. According to GiftCards.com, gift card recipients spend an average of 20 percent more than the value of the card upon redemption.
Look for deals
If you have a lot of items to send a good distance away, look for ways to cut costs. For example, look for flat-rate boxes, which may benefit those who have a lot to ship to the same location.
With a flat-rate box, you pay one rate no matter where it's going or the weight of the contents, according to USPS.com. Likewise, local pack-and-ship companies may offer holiday deals to better compete with the post office and the national companies.
One of the best deals happens on Dec. 18. That's free shipping day, when online shoppers will get free shipping on purchases made at participating retailers. And all of the retailers guarantee delivery by Christmas Day. You can also find free shipping deals year-round at FreeShipping.org.
Protect your investment
Chances are, your gifts will arrive at their destinations. But if they don't, are you willing to take a financial loss? Know the consequences, should your gifts get lost or arrive damaged, before you have them shipped.
FedEx does not offer insurance, but "what customers can do is declare a value on a package," says Carla A. Boyd, a spokeswoman for FedEx, and customers will be reimbursed up to that amount should the item get lost or damaged. FedEx also offers a money-back guarantee if items don't arrive by the quoted time. Normally, this benefit means FedEx will refund your money if the item is a minute late, but during the holiday season, there's a 90-minute grace period before your money would be returned.
If you use a pack-and-ship store for packing services, you may get even more protection at no extra cost. For example, if a customer uses The UPS Store's packing services and the gift is damaged or lost, the customer will be reimbursed for the item's value, the cost of packaging materials and shipping charges, according to UPS.com.
If you choose to pack your items yourself, make sure you choose the proper type of box. Use a sturdy box, not something that could get smashed easily during shipment.
When packing your box, don't use duct tape or string because they may get caught in the automated machinery that's used to process mail. Also, when wrapping electronic items or gifts that have batteries, take the batteries out and wrap them separately within the box.
Expect the contents to shift. If the "on" button inadvertently switches on and your gift starts ticking, it may spark a security scare, which could lead to it getting damaged or destroyed.
Wrap your items as securely as possible. If you pick up the box and the contents slide around, pack them more securely. Bubble Wrap, old newspaper and packing peanuts will all do the trick.
Finally, address the gift properly. Not only should the address of the sender and the recipient be on the outside of the package, the U.S. Postal Service suggests that you also put that information on an index card inside the package in case the box is damaged or inadvertently opens during transit.
Although there may seem to be a lot to consider, the most important thing is to get your items off as soon as possible. Due to holiday mail volume, the sooner you ship, the better.