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Retailers start pushing holiday shopping early, but for the most part, consumers don’t seem to buy in.

Americans spend nearly 40% more on their credit cards in December than they do in an average month, according to the latest TransUnion Spend Vectors study. That’s a significant hike from November, in which spending levels are about 5% above average, even though huge deal days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday often fall in November.

The study evaluated the credit files of about 2 million randomly sampled, anonymous consumers with active credit cards as of March 31, 2013. The data showed December brings the most credit card spending, but August — with its popular back-to-school sales — came in second, with consumers spending about 7% more than the annual monthly average.

Conversely, consumers largely pull back on credit card spending in the late winter and early spring: Spending is 1.2% below average in January and a whopping 21.9% below average in February. Consumers spend significantly less in March, as well, spending 17% less than average.

The February and March cutbacks may result from a holiday credit hangover — buying more than you can afford for the holidays and spending the first several months of the new year shoring up debts. It’s not surprising consumers have to balance out holiday spending, considering 20% of shoppers spend at least twice as much in December as they normally do. The median amount spent in December 2012 was just more than $600, up from about $575 in 2011.

But spending more in December isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as the consumer can pay the bill, ideally in full, dollar volume isn’t the issue. It’s only when high spending leads to debt and delinquency that frequent credit card use becomes a problem. Shoppers should also mind their credit limits — using a high percentage of available credit will hurt credit scores.

Holiday shopping months may have started today, but it’s not too late to save up enough to cover that December credit card bill. Cutting back on flexible areas of the budget or finding extra sources of income will help make the holidays affordable, and making and keeping to a spending plan is an effective way to avoid overspending.

Image: LittleBee80

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