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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Annette Harris is a self-proclaimed "shopaholic." But after years of giving lavish gifts, she is cutting back since she has been unemployed for more than a year and depleted much of her savings.
Americans are taking a closer look at their spending habits this holiday season as the country is mired in its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
"I'm a shopaholic, so it's very difficult. This will probably be the worst time of year for me," said Harris, who used to shop at Saks, Neiman Marcus and Macy's to satisfy cravings for items such as Jimmy Choo shoes.
To keep her spirits up while she looks for a job, Harris has been researching her family genealogy. She is thinking about giving copies of the family tree as Christmas presents this year or may distribute a 10-page poem she began writing on November 4, when Barack Obama was elected U.S. president.
Even those who have not felt the pinch as much as Harris say they are taking a more altruistic approach to the holidays, finding other ways to show their appreciation to loved ones or contributing to less-fortunate strangers.
Theresa Ogden said she would donate more toys and clothing to charities this year.
"I am very fortunate," Ogden said as she walked out of a J.C. Penney store in Racine, Wisconsin. "I'm pitching in to do a bit more in terms of donating to others. I've heard too many bad stories about other people."
Shoppers are still expected to come out and spend, but with more caution. The National Retail Federation expects U.S. holiday sales to increase 2.2 percent to $470.4 billion this year, although consumers spooked by the economic crisis bought sparingly at the start of the holiday shopping season.
Jamal Bullock, an engineer for Lockheed Martin, is nervous about the economy and wants to give different types of gifts this year, like making a collage, having a family dinner or letting someone use his time-share property for a week.
"I want to give more thoughtful gifts than gaudy, pricey gifts," Bullock, 30, said while shopping at a Target store in Maryland on Friday.
Retailers are getting in on the giving trend too. Borders asked shoppers in its stores if they would like to buy a book for the Toys for Tots charity, while athletic shoe retailer Finish Line sought donations for a charitable foundation.
Shoppers at a Sears store on Chicago's State Street on Saturday could get a cup of hot chocolate if they donated a dollar or more to Heroes at Home, which gives Sears gift cards to military families.
The Salvation Army's red kettles were once again outside several thousand stores, with workers ringing bells to attract shoppers to give spare change for food and toys.
The Salvation Army raised more than $118 million during last year's campaign, when U.S. holiday sales totaled nearly $470 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.
Harris, 54, who was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant at an investment company, was shopping early on Saturday, but not for gifts. She needed boots before a snowstorm expected to hit Chicago on Sunday.
Harris worries she might be forced into early retirement since the job search is not going well. She may also sell some of her shoes to raise money.
Janice Peters, a social worker shopping in Jersey City, New Jersey, plans to spend about half the $550 to $700 she spent last year. She is looking at making scrapbooks to give as gifts.
The charitable holiday spirit is also being promoted online. A group called Redefine Christmas touts donating to charities rather than buying gifts. GlobalGiving.com asked shoppers to skip the sales on Black Friday and buy gift cards that let recipients choose the causes they want to support.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is asking toy marketers to stop targeting kids and help parents avoid embarrassment when they cannot afford to buy much.
Some Americans are just sick of the spending.
"The consumerism of the country is appalling," said Judith Aplon, 70, of Boulder, Colorado, who was visiting Washington, D.C.
"We talk about other countries, where they have religious battles; in India for instance between Hindus and Muslims," she said. "It's just the same here, except our religion is 'buy, buy, buy.'"
Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs, Ben Klayman, Nicole Maestri and Aarthi Sivaraman; Editing by Vicki Allen