The fourth quarter of the year is to retailers what the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl is to the teams on the field. It’s “go” time — time to step up, give it all they’ve got, and win the game!

According to the National Retail Federation, the fourth quarter is when retailers generate as much as 40% of their annual sales. So, it’s no surprise they pull out all the promotional stops, including their most emotionally-charged ads, their most-hyped shopping events (Black Friday and Cyber Monday), and their most aggressive buy-now-pay-later pitches.

What follows is our attempt to help you maintain your sanity and solvency during what has become the most marketed time of year.

  • If you don’t have it, don’t spend it.

    As a hilarious old Saturday Night Live skit taught, don’t buy stuff you cannot afford. That may sound stunningly simplistic. However, if we’re not careful, because of our natural desire to show love and appreciation for family and friends at this time of year, we can easily get swept along in a flood of emotion-tugging holiday commercials and seemingly generous financing deals. Before you know it, January finds us filled with regret over our spendthrift ways.

    One of today’s most prevalent financing offers is a modern take on an old idea: the layaway plan. Lots of retailers are promoting such plans. You determine what you want to buy, make a down payment, make a series of scheduled payments, and pay a fee for the privilege. Here’s a better idea. Determine what you want to buy, make a down payment to your savings account or an envelope, make a series of scheduled deposits, and keep the fee.

    A far more dangerous financing offer is the no-money-down, no-payments-or-interest-for-a-year (or more) plan. It sounds too good to be true, and may even be misinterpreted as good stewardship.

    Let’s say you decide to treat your family to a new television. Instead of coming up with the full $3,799.98 for today’s must-have 65-inch curved ultra HD TV (normally $4,999.98!), you can keep most of that money tucked away in an interest-earning savings account (you do have the full purchase price in savings, don’t you?), while you make small, easy payments each month for the next 24 months.

    What could go wrong? Plenty. You might need to use your savings for something else along the way. Of course, you might not even have the full purchase price in savings, and those small, easy monthly payments may soon feel like one big burden.

    The worst thing that could happen is not paying off the TV in full by the end of your agreement. In that case, an exorbitant interest rate will be applied to the purchase price retroactively, meaning you could still owe more than the initial purchase price even though you’ve been making payments.

    Financing the balance may lead you to pay the equivalent cost of a new car when all is said and done.
     
  • Beware the dreaded add-on.

    With many items, you have to factor in the cost of other items you need in order to make the most of the main item. Take that TV we just mentioned. Cables, a wall mount, a sound bar, and an extended warranty could easily tack on several hundred more dollars in additional costs. The same principle applies to many other items, such as a video game system (think of all the games you’ll want to buy now and in the future, additional controllers, and more).

    Speaking of extended warranties, Consumer Reports generally recommends taking a pass. Why? Manufacturer warranties often cover the period in which a product is most likely to fail, and if it breaks after that, the repair cost will likely be less than an extended warranty. Plus, your credit-card company may provide you with an extended warranty for free. Find out before you go shopping.
     
  • Black Friday may not save you much.

    Every year, there’s tremendous buzz around Black Friday, with supposedly leaked ads and new apps to help you devise a deal-by-deal battle plan.

    Sadly, Black Friday has gradually leaked into Thanksgiving Thursday, a misguided intrusion into what is normally a day reserved for family. But don’t worry. If you’re resolved to resisting the call of the mall while the turkey is still warm, you’re probably not missing many true deals.

    After studying 1.5 million deals from the past five years, the deal site Savings.com concluded that this year’s best deals on toys and electronics will be found on the day before Thanksgiving. The deepest discounts on apparel will be seen on Cyber Monday (December 1).

Two final bits of advice. First, while this is too late for this year, devote two line items in your household budget to gifts — one for monthly gifts (birthdays, weddings) and one for Christmas gifts. Each month, automatically transfer one-twelfth of your annual Christmas gift budget to a savings account. When Christmas rolls around, you’ll have money already set aside for gifts.

Second, always remember, a deal isn’t really a deal unless it’s a discount on something you were planning to buy anyway.