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How to save money this holiday season and avoid a 'holiday hangover'

There are ways to get everything on your list on the cheap — or even for free!
/ Source: TODAY

It's the season for family, decorating and shopping for presents. And although your holiday shopping list may be long, NBC News senior business correspondent Stephanie Ruhle wants you to know that you don't need to go into debt to bring the holiday cheer.

"We know it's the season of giving, but that does not mean it's the season of free-for-alls," said Ruhle.

Even if you've already overspent, don't despair. Ruhle has all the tools needed to avoid a dreaded "holiday debt hangover" and even a tip on how to score some of your holiday gifts for free (yes, you read that right!)

Know the money rules

Before you start bargain hunting, it's essential to understand some basic terms that will help you keep spending in check.

Credit: This is not just a piece of plastic in your wallet that allows you to swipe, tap or insert to get stuff. Credit is your ability to borrow money with the expectation that you're going to pay it back, says Ruhle. The key point here is that you need to pay your bill on time and in full, otherwise you risk hurting your credit score and overall financial health.

Interest: Lenders charge you a percent of your purchase when you use a credit card. It's important to pay attention to the amount of interest you'll be paying.

Make a plan

"We all end up swiping, swiping and overspending," says Ruhle. "Take a deep breath." She says to plan not only what you're going to buy, but where you'll buy it and most importantly, how you're going to pay for it.

According to Credit Karma, one in three Americans expects to take on debt during the holidays. Connecticut mom Crystal Terry said that although she makes a budget for gifts for her family, it's easy to overspend.

"I can budget one or two hundred dollars and can come home with $500 worth of things," she said.

"I want to be cautious of my spending because we do want to eventually save up to buy a house."

Ruhle said that for people like Terry, it's important to remember that more joy doesn't have to equal more spending. One way to do that is to go on a cash diet, which means to spend cash only when you go to the mall, which stops you from overspending. But now that many people do online shopping Ruhle says we need to be aware of the "buy now, pay later" option offered on so many websites.

"What this essentially lets you do is make a purchase now and break that payment up into installments," said Kristin McGrath, an editor at RetailMeNot. "Terms vary by program. But in the moment, the money is a little less real," saying it can be easy to lose track. "Some of them charge you late fees if you miss a payment. Some have interest involved."

3 tips to stay on budget

1. Make a list.

McGrath said to put money aside in advance and then "make a really detailed itemized list with pen and paper," so that you know what you're going to spend on each person.

2. Research price history.

Just because something is on sale now doesn't mean it's the best price. "When it comes to gifts, start looking up those items using a price history tool to see if you should really jump on it," said McGrath.

3. Curb impulse shopping.

Shop online, which gives you the option to find the items you want and be able to find back up options instead of grabbing items at the spur of the moment, says McGrath. Start looking for deals now instead of waiting for Black Friday and Cyber Monday which can cause you to buy impulsively.

Try this tip: Buy nothing

The idea of buying nothing for the holidays may sound crazy, but many people are doing just that through online communities that encourage people to spend less and save more.

Sarah Ribblon is an admin of a local Buy Nothing group in Plainfield, Illinois. She does her Christmas shopping by browsing listings of items others in the group are giving away — and at the same time "gifts" stuff she no longer needs to others in the group. She said that some groups even do their own version of Black Friday.

"And so on Black Friday, instead of running out to all the stores, you sit at home in your pajamas, and people are posting and posting and posting gifts," she said.

"My daughter, for Christmas her largest gift from Santa has come from Buy Nothing the last few years," said Ribblon. "One time she got at an American Girl doll house. And you know the best part of that gift was we didn't have to put it together. It stands over probably four feet tall, and three or four feet wide. I'm sure it was a lot of money in the market economy and we got it for absolutely free."

Buy Nothing has grown to nearly seven thousand groups in 44 countries around the world and even released an app just in time for the holidays.

"It's really just neighbors helping neighbors," she said.

For more great tips on how to spend mindfully, visit On The Money TODAY.