Debt consolidation can get you some breathing room and help you improve your credit rating. Like most things, debt consolidation is only worth doing if you plan to do it right. And debt consolidation right before the holiday season has its own special pitfalls. Here's a checklist for getting that debt-monkey off your back for good!

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1. No more impulse buying--and avoid holiday temptation!

Retail therapy is not really therapy and you know it. Impulse buying is one of the leading causes of excess credit cards debt. And as habits go, it's a booger--very hard to break. But, if you want to achieve financial health and peace of mind, you have to get a handle on the non-essential spending--and no cheating by defining Jimmy Choos or big screens as "essential!" Always buy items with cash and shop with a list. Avoid shopping malls and Web sites that trigger buying lusts and acquisitive instincts. Add to your life--if there is no emptiness and no boredom you will not need to fill it up with mindless purchases. Avoid conspicuously-consuming friends until you have mastered your money and your willpower. Get outside help if you need to.

2. Put the credit cards on ice or in the shredder.

The more credit cards you have, the greater the odds that you will create more credit card debt. Many make a critical mistake and keep credit cards with them after debt consolidation, leaving them vulnerable to buying blunders ("Really! I was on Ambien when I bought that jacket! I don't even remember doing it!"). Therefore, once you have consolidated all the credit card balances, close department store accounts and gas cards and your newer cards, leaving a few open for emergencies and to maintain your credit rating. Then, avoid temptation by leaving them in the freezer or shredding them so you don't tap them indiscriminately.

3. Find the best consolidation loan

When choosing a consolidation loan, decide what type works best for you--secured or unsecured? Fixed or variable? Line of credit or straight loan? Secured loans offer lower rates, but you could lose your property if you end up defaulting. Unsecured loans can be discharged in a bankruptcy if necessary. Straight loans which amortize fully and are paid off over time are usually preferable to lines of credit which can be run up again and again and keep you in debt longer. Once you decide, get a lot of loan quotes, shop with several providers, and choose one that is reputable, competitive, and provides good service. Be aware of potential hidden fees by reading the fine print of loan agreement before accepting it.

4. Work your way out of debt

After consolidating multiple debts into a consolidation loan, it does not mean you have completely eliminated your debt, it's just been transferred to a loan for ease of management and interest rate savings. YOUR DEBT IS STILL WITH YOU. Do NOT relax (especially not in Hawaii or Vegas) yet--you still have to pay the loan on time and work your way out of debt in order to enjoy financial independence.

5. Don't get sucked back in!

Remember that line from The Godfather? "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." Your creditors have as little compunction as a Mafia don about getting you back into debt--offers, pre-approved cards, and special incentives will bombard your mailbox and inbox almost immediately. But there's another phrase that you can make part of your vocabulary""Just say no."