As the holiday shopping season opens, consumers seem to be feeling cautious but a bit more confident about their spending than they were last year in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

In a study that will bring some solace to retailers, most consumers report that they plan to spend the same (61 percent) or more (15 percent) than they did in 2001. The number who plan to spend less -- 21 percent -- was down sharply from the 28 percent of a year ago.

The report by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association suggests that burdensome debt levels are behind the restraint that many consumers exhibited. It found a notable uptick in concern among consumers about their ability to handle their non-mortgage debt payments.

Despite plunging interest rates in many parts of the economy, Federal Reserve figures show that consumer debt remains stubbornly high as a percentage of disposable household income. Although down from the 1980s, when debt service ate up more than 8 percent of such disposable income, it is still at 7.8 percent.

Nearly a third of the consumers surveyed described themselves as "very concerned" about their ability to make their monthly non-mortgage debt payments -- up from 19 percent a year ago -- and 16 percent said they are "somewhat concerned." Not surprisingly then, 40 percent said, when asked what they'd do if they got a $5,000 windfall, that they'd pay down debt.

These are serious issues for families going into the holidays. The pressure to overspend between Thanksgiving and New Year's is almost as intense as the pressure to overeat -- and both can have long-term consequences.

So now is the time to begin planning, and to work out a system to stay within your means. Don't violate what one Washington wag recently called the First Law of Holes: When you're in one, stop digging.

Experts recommend drawing up a strict budget and sticking to it. Make a list of the people you expect to buy gifts for, figure the amount you want to spend, and then add it up. If the total is too high, revise.

If you have trouble restraining yourself, try a strategy Fairfax financial planner Ric Edelman often recommends: Leave your credit card at home and take cash when you go shopping. When you're out of cash, you're done, so you have to be careful.

This also helps with your planning. If you can't lay your hands on enough cash to cover your budget, that's a message to revise your budget -- maybe a card will do for some folks, or maybe Aunt Jane will be just as happy with a cotton sweater as a wool one. And if you must use credit, put yourself on a payment schedule in January to get the debt paid off. That means paying more than the minimum asked by the bank. As the report put it: "If you only make the 1.5% required monthly payment, you probably will never pay off the debt."

And finally, if you chronically have problems with holiday expenses, a real New Year's resolution can help. Start a savings plan -- open a separate bank account if you have to -- and make regular contributions. If you can get through next year with less borrowing, and can repeat the process in subsequent years, you not only will have stopped digging your financial hole, you'll be on your way to filling it in.

Special state tax credits meant to encourage employers to provide child care for workers aren't having much effect, according to a study by the National Women's Law Center here.

As reported in The Post last week, the credits allow an employer to offset part of its expenses for child care by obtaining a credit against its state tax liability. But when the study examined the experience of 20 states, it found that almost no companies are claiming the credits.

In 16 of the 20 states, including Maryland, five or fewer companies have used the credits. And in five states, including Virginia, no employer has used them.

The reason for the failure, the study said, is that most corporations have little if any state tax liability. On average, it found, 57 percent of state corporate filers have no tax liability, and 93 percent have too little to take full advantage of the credits.

The study, titled "The Little Engine That Hasn't," suggests that its findings bode ill for new federal credits included in the big tax cut bill of 2001 and first effective this year. It said the state credits seem to have created a windfall for the few employers that use them because those employers would have provided child care anyway. At the same time, because state budgets assume that money will be spent on the credits, those funds are denied other programs that might be more effective.

The Senate last week approved a measure that would repeal the 2010 "sunset" of a provision that excludes from taxation the reparations for victims of Nazi persecution. The House approved the measure in June and the president is expected to sign it. . . . A survey by TrueCareers, an online job site for professionals, finds that 84 percent of private-sector employees would accept a job with lower pay if it offered a generous benefits package.