Image: Woman with Santa hat © Ingram Publishing, SuperStock

Related topics: savings, holiday spending, budgeting, shopping, MP Dunleavey

Pressure, stress and confusion, inexplicable choices, a complete lapse of taste.

Alzheimer's? No, it's Holiday Gift-Shopping Syndrome! If you suffer panic attacks at the mall or you have recurring nightmares about the colossal gift gaffes you've made over the years -- you may be an HGSS sufferer.

Take two Advil and keep reading, because the only cure is to spot the pitfalls early. The following primer will help you save yourself some angst -- and quite a bit of money -- by avoiding these classic gift-giving faux pas. (And your nearest and dearest will be ever so grateful when you give them stuff they like this year.)

The not-so-subtle suggestion: There's nothing quite like watching the expression on people's faces when they open one of these: a set of meditation tapes for Mr. Type A, a low-carb cookbook for your sister or an Elizabeth Arden makeup and spackling extravaganza for Grandma. Just don't be surprised if they all go in on a gift for you next year: a one-way ticket.

The useless gadget: Everyone has someone on his or her list who is seemingly impervious to gift-giving. It might be your boss, your dad or some other (inevitably) male relative. They appear to have no interests, no style, no obvious needs. So you race to one of those stores that specialize in "stuff guys like" and spend more than you should on a PGA-approved golf ball cleaner. In case he ever starts golfing. Why? Why, why, why?

The lingerie trap: My husband passes along this lesson learned from hard experience: Never buy lingerie for a woman unless she has ripped out the page from the Victoria's Secret catalog and circled the exact item herself. If she opens a box and sees something that looks like a black satin hanky, it just opens up a can of worms: "Why does he want me to wear that? Does he need me to look trashy? Doesn't he like me the way I am? Next thing you know he'll want me to wear a blond wig and fishnet stockings like a streetwalker!" You can go from surprise to Splitsville in five or six mental leaps. Way too expensive on sooooo many levels.

The deadly weapon: A former editor admitted that he briefly considered buying his 12-year-old son a water-balloon slingshot (because he wanted one himself, of course). But after reflecting a bit on the damage that a water balloon can do to unsuspecting passers-by after traveling 500 feet from his backyard to a nearby road, he decided against it. Unless you're just dying to test the limits of your liability insurance, stick to Dora the Explorer and video games.

One for the price of two: You really want that MAC lipstick for yourself, but you're in denial. So you get it for a friend and talk yourself into believing she will like this gift, when what you're unconsciously hoping is that she will give it back to you -- which she doesn't. So after Christmas you end up buying the thing for yourself anyway, thus spending twice as much money and making only one of you happy.

The maroon mistake: It's almost always a bad idea to give clothing to someone you don't actually live with. And even then you have to be careful (see "the lingerie trap," above). You'll invariably buy either the wrong size or the wrong color or both, like the time I randomly bought my aunt a quilted maroon vest. Why did I think she would like a quilted maroon vest when she wears neither vests nor the color maroon?

The guilt-edged party gift: Ack! You're invited to a holiday party at the last minute and you don't have time to even pick up a bottle of wine. But you do have time to throw some ribbon around those earrings your dad gave you last year and give them to the hostess. Is this worth the thousands it will cost you in therapy bills to overcome your guilt? Consider the cost -- especially when your dad meets said hostess at your own holiday party a year later, and she's wearing your earrings. Just buy the wine, will ya?

The joke's on you: Before you spend $20 on a whoopee cushion or another joke item, think about flushing that $20 down the toilet. Is that funny? I didn't think so.

Books by the pound: Why buy a mere book when for the same money you can give a tome? That 2,000-page volume of the sixth installment in the life of Lyndon Johnson is MUCH more desirable than a book someone might actually read. Sure, the megabook can be read by those with more time than taste, but it can also serve as a flower press, a doorstop and kindling. Four gifts in one!

Inventiveness or desperation?

Gifts made by your own $40-an-hour hands: At some point, the Spirit of Frugality will pin you to the floor and tell you that the best way to save money during the holidays is to make all your gifts by hand. Resist this impulse! First of all, just because you don't have money doesn't mean you have talent. Second, handmade gifts always cost more than you think, in both time and money. My truly talented sister-in-law, Deirdre, decided to make people jewelry one year. She quit when she found out how much it was costing her in supplies, never mind the all-nighters spent stringing tiny beads.

Things that can't be exchanged on this planet: Resist the urge to go down to your local Tofutti 'n' Things boutique and buy a one-of-a-kind set of embroidered Bolivian hankies imported by the proprietor herself for your sister who lives on the opposite coast. The odds are good your sister will hate them and curse you for making her buy a $400 plane ticket to exchange them.

Last year's gift, again: My mother's best friend gave her a kaleidoscope. Several times. At least two Christmases and a birthday. So try to keep track of what you've given people in the past. Dad doesn't need a fourth scarf. (I once gave my sister-in-law the same book three times.) If you're not sure, ask someone who might remember last year better than you do.

Treasures from King Tut's tomb: It's always so tempting to buy from those slick museum catalogs. How can you go wrong giving a replica of something that has been sitting in the Smithsonian Museum for a hundred years? But unless you know that your cousin in Denver loves Egyptian artifacts or really wants a lamp that sprouts from the head of Queen Nefertiti, forget it. Warning: If it looks tasteful, keep shopping.

The pro-am present: My brother is a cooking maven. Ask him the difference between braise, stew and sauté and you'd better have a good hour on your hands. So guess what I never give my brother? Anything to do with cooking. I know, it's tempting. Your brother-in-law plays a mean game of golf. Therefore: DON'T waste your money on a golf gift. He already has it. And now he has to return it.

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And finally . . .

The thoughtlessness that counts: Don't get pierced earrings for your friend who doesn't have pierced ears (I did). Don't buy cookies for a diabetic. No booze for the teetotaler. Don't get "Fear of Flying" for a born-again Christian. You get the idea.

With these 15 rules in mind, you can easily avoid the worst gift-giving mistakes. You'll save time. You'll save money. And you will thank me when your credit card bill comes in January and, thanks to this list, you haven't bought a thing for anyone.

Happy holidays!