Simon Read: Bah! Sales are just an invitation to spend

A Christmas quiz. How much will spend over this year's festivities? And how much can you afford to spend? For many folk the desire to ensure a merry time will lead to a dreadful financial hangover in 2010. Barclays says that we'll splash a record £23bn on debit cards by the end of the month with £17.8bn being withdrawn in cash.

Yesterday lunchtime was set to be the busiest time at the cashpoints with some £24,000 being withdrawn every second. You'd almost think that the tough times were past. but, of course, they're not. While the festive excess has been going on, many people have been pushing themselves further towards debt problems.

Citizens Advice says it dealt with more than 3m people with debt problems in the year to the end of the September and debt is now the number one reason people turn to the charity. The trend is upwards, with the number of people with debt problems growing at an annual rate of 21 per cent.

The danger of debt is undoubtedly being fuelled by the ease of spending and borrowing money on plastic, which is one reason why we should hestitate before writing off cheques. Getting rid of them could simply make the problem worse for those people who keep control of their spending by carefully recording the amount they spend on the stub. Thus they know if they are in danger of going into the red.

But those who do already use only plastic need to learn to resist the temptation to overspend – particularly in the sales that start on Boxing Day. The extra bank holiday over the Christmas weekend is likely to see high streets and shopping centres across the UK heaving with shoppers keen to make the most of the annual sales and snap up a bargain. But avoiding making the trip will mean less stress, and less chance of buying an expensive 'bargain'.

Let's face it, the sales are simply a chance for retailers to offload their old tat and unsold seasonal items. So when was the last time you actually got a real bargain? I don't mean something that was 90 per cent off and so seemed like a great deal. I'm talking about something that you actually needed that you were able to snap up for a fraction of its normal price.

I'm betting that few folk can remember ever getting a good deal in the sales. I know I can't. For that reason I'll be giving them a miss and, in the process, avoiding the temptation to overspend this year. The more of us that do the same, the less likely we will wake up in the New Year dreading the arrival of the January bills.

And if you're putting Christmas on plastic this year, start next year with better intentions by squirelling away a little bit of cash each month so that you can look forward to a stress-free Christmas 2010. If you are facing debt worries head to your local Citizens Advice where opening hours have been extended to cope with the increased demand. There's also advice at its website where you can download a 'Ten Top Money Tips to avoid a debt hangover' leaflet.