This weekend will be important for U.S. retailers. They’ll be counting their pennies carefully. With retail sales already down sharply from 2007, merchants are eager for a strong start to the holiday shopping season.

The day after Thanksgiving — now dubbed “Black Friday” — has become something of a ritualized cultural experience, and one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Many people view the day as a chance to grab stellar deals on Christmas gifts.

But will people be spending this year? With the economy wobbling like a top, will the American consumer come through to prop up flagging retail sales?

The merchants hope so, as do many economists, but a new study from the American Research Group shows that the amount Americans plan to spend on Christmas gifts this year is half what they planned to spend last year, and the lowest number in at least a decade.

Planned spending on Christmas gifts
(via the American Research Group)

If you plan to shop this weekend, check out:

While some of my friends subscribe to the “take the day off to find bargains on Black Friday” school of thought, I’ve traditionally sided with another camp. On the day after Thanksgiving, I observe Buy Nothing Day.

For the past decade, I’ve elected not to shop on Black Friday. It’s one way for me to avoid consumerism. Subscribing to a consumerist mindset helped to put me in debt in the first place. I don’t begrudge others their bargains and shopping fun, but I choose not to participate. This year will be no different.

Ramit at I Will Teach You to Be Rich has taken things one step further. Rather than feel obligated to buy gifts you can’t afford, he says, why not do something different — like spend time with those who are important to you:

I’ve come up with a site that I hope you can share with your friends and family. It’s free, and it’s very simple, but the point is to share the idea that you can do something for the people you love without spending money.

At No Christmas Gifts This Year, you can send customized e-cards suggesting alternatives to buying gifts.

If the idea of abandoning gifts entirely is too extreme for you, consider creating homemade Christmas gifts this year.

Regardless of which path you plan to pursue — Black Friday, Buy Nothing Day, or No Christmas Gifts This Year — please spend responsibly. Buy only what you need and can afford. Don’t be lured into impulse purchases. Avoid debt. And most of all, enjoy the spirit of the season.

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