With the holiday season in full swing, now is the time to take a look at your finance to find ways to stretch your holiday budget and avoid the preverbal lump of coal in your January bill statements.

1. Spend your virtual dollars first: If you are someone who stockpiles points and miles throughout the year, now is the time to take advantage of your "virtual dollars" and find out what you can buy with them. 

Start by adding up all of your credit card, hotel and airline points and miles. Each point or mile typically translates to a little less than one cent (between 0.60 to 1.0 cents exactly), which can add up to a nice gift.  I use awardwallet.com to keep track of airline, hotel and credit card points for my family members and myself.

For example, I currently have 174,085 points; which is roughly $1,044 to $1,741 in the virtual world. Once I know how much I have to spend, I jump on the redemption site for each of my rewards programs (e.g. shopamex.com, Marriott.com/rewards or United’s mileageplus.com) and see where I can knock something off my list.  

One tip: buying gift cards yields the best conversion rates in these programs.

2. See what deals your credit cards and banks are offering: All the major credit card companies and banks have worked out deals with merchants so they can offer discounts or others perks to their card members. 

Most of these are available at special sites such as bonuspointsmall.com (American Express), additup.bankofamerica.com (Bank of America) or citi.com/thankyou (Citigroup). Make sure you visit these sites first, where you’ll find discounts ranging from 5% to 30%.

American Express makes it even easier with its newly-released inSite browser app. Download the app from insite.americanexpress.com, then shop the way you always do. What you’ll notice is that the American Express logo will start popping up in your search results – that’s the inSite app letting you know every time there is an American Express offer available for that exact item. You’ll find bonus point offers, discounts or even free shipping.

3. Make sure your credit cards are paying you back: With the onslaught of TV ads and browser banners that advertise credit card rewards, it can be tiring to find a perfect fit. But if you stick to one card for all your holiday spending, you can rack up enough points to buy yourself a gift once the holiday mayhem has subsided. 

To find the card with the best rewards program for you, you could search at www.google.com/comparisonads/uscredit to discover credit card offers based on certain card attributes such as "no annual fee" and/or by specifying your credit quality.  

Or use the wizard provided by Billshrink to find the right credit card based on your spending pattern. 

If you want an expert’s opinion, here are my top picks:

Cash-back: The best cash-back cards feature quick bonuses like the Chase Freedom and Discover More cards, which give a $100 reward for reaching a checkpoint in the first three months ($799 and $500, respectively). Also, both cards offer a 5% bonus for travel, gas, groceries, and 1% unlimited cash-back on all other purchases.

Reward Points: If you are looking for reward points, the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card currently is the best. You get 25,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months, plus your points can multiply on specific purchases.

Airline Miles: The Capitol One Venture card awards two miles for every dollar you spend on anything. You can use those points toward any travel expense, and like the other cards, there is a spending bonus in your first three months--$1,000 spent earns 10,000 bonus miles. Best of all, there are no blackout dates or any of those odd transaction fees involved. You just get your rewards and go.

 

As you can see, all you need are the right tools, and you’ll able to shop online more efficiently, leaving time for what really matters this season.

 

Murali Subbarao, is the founder and CEO of Billeo, Inc. (www.billeo.com). Billeo provides a suite of free Online Assistants that save people time and money in all types of online transactions, from shopping to bill pay. To do this, Billeo works with more than 1,500 merchants and 40 banks, and top credit cards, including Visa and American Express. In 2010, Billeo was named “The Best Free Software” by PC Magazine. Subbarao has worked in high-tech and financial services for more than 16 years, most recently developing Internet Banking and Payment solutions with Hewlett-Packard.