18 Tips to Save on Holiday Shopping

There may be more people going on Santa’s “naughty” list this year.

A survey from the National Retail Federation finds that despite smaller holiday budgets for 2011, people are planning to take advantage of deals and do more “self-gifting.”

Shoppers expect to spend an average of $704 on seasonal merchandise and gifts, the study shows. It also says more than half of those surveyed plan to take advantage of sales to spend $130 on purchases for themselves.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson looks at a few ways to stretch that gift budget. Check it out, and then read on for more tips.

As you heard, the people Stacy interviewed for this story are planning to spend well over the average NRF predicted. But regardless of your holiday budget, these tips can make a big difference in what goes under the tree…

1. Start early.

This tops the list because it helps with almost every other tip below. More time can mean more flexibility in your schedule, more creativity in presents, and more savings that can lead to more generosity. It also results in fewer impulse buys, last-minute panics, out-of-stock must-haves, price gouging, and frenzied mobs trampling you.

Here’s how the NRF breaks down shopping habits: 39 percent started before Halloween, 40 percent start this month, 17 percent plan to get it done in the first two weeks of December, and the other 4 percent procrastinate even more.

2. Decide and divide.

Start with a budgeted number, figure out who is getting gifts this year, decide how much you’re willing to spend on each person, and stick to it. Some find it easier to do this by making a separate envelope for each recipient, then putting the applicable amount of cash in it. If you feel bad about setting limits, tell people to do the same for you.

3. Sort your list.

While you’re checking it twice, try to group people on your list for whom you might purchase the same gift (you might get a volume discount) or at least shop in the same place (to save on gas and hassle).

4. Cross yourself off.

You already buy yourself stuff year-round, and the holidays are about sharing. Skip the “to me, from me” presents. Instead, be obvious about what you want (kids aren’t the only ones with wish lists) and hope you receive it.

5. Check for coupons.

Don’t buy anything without checking for discounts. Follow your favorite retailers on Twitter and Facebook for deals and sales notices, see who’s offering free shipping on FreeShipping.org, watch for bargains on our deals page, and look for coupons on sites like RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com.

6. Shop online.

The NRF notes more people than last year will do some online shopping: almost 47 percent. The average shopper plans to do more than a third of their shopping from the computer, and why not? It’s convenient and saves on gas, and there are a lot of great deals. You just have to be careful with shipping dates, and shop with reputable merchants. Mark Nov. 28 on your calendar – that’s Cyber Monday, the online version of Black Friday.

7. Get rebates/rewards.

Doing all your holiday shopping with a rewards credit card is one way to get a little back (see our rewards card search). If you don’t have or don’t want to use a credit card, shop through referral sites like eBates for cash-back bonuses usually in the range of 3 to 6 percent. Spend those points on yourself (to ease the pain of tip No. 4) or use them to buy gifts next year.

8. Shop inside and outside of the box.

While department stores will be seeing increased traffic this year (57 percent plan to shop there), the NRF also expects an uptick at drug stores (21 percent) and grocery stores (49 percent). Since you probably visit these places regularly, take a moment on your next trip to scope out gift possibilities. “Personal care items” are on more than 19 percent of consumers’ wish lists. And as you probably already know, you can now pick up all manner of gift cards at many grocery and other stores.

Don’t forget about outlet stores and warehouse clubs, which can also have great prices.

9. Realize used is not always bad.

Browse around antique stores, pawn shops, and auction sites too. Things that are rare, hand-crafted, collector’s edition, or vintage – like out-of-print or autographed books – are perfectly fine gifts.

10. Build gift baskets.

Discount/dollar stores might sound like a strange place to shop for gifts, but not if you’re creative. You can “theme” gift baskets for different people. Example: For a movie theme, buy a popcorn bucket and toss in some popcorn, cheap candy, and some discount DVDs or a Netflix gift card.

11. Play the numbers.

Not the lotto – different gifting arrangements, like the traditional “Secret Santa” where everybody in a group only has to buy (and only gets) one gift. Or use the many-to-one strategy: Pool your money with others to purchase a more expensive present for someone.

12. Get gift cards.

These aren’t a cop-out present. The National Retail Federation says the interest in gift cards is the highest it has ever seen, with about 58 percent of shoppers wanting them. Best part: You can regift unused ones (after checking the balance and expiration date) or buy them at a discount on sites like GiftCardRescue.com, where they’re around 15 percent off for major retailers. Not personal enough? You can design your own at GiftCards.com.

13. Buy an older model.

Instead of buying the latest-generation gizmo, get last year’s. Not only is it cheaper, but you won’t have to wait in line.

14. Offer a service.

The most personal gifts for friends and family usually don’t cost much other than time and thought. Show you care about their problems, and find a way to give them what they need help with: training with or setup of some kind of technology? A babysitter, an organizer, a promoter, an accountant, someone to clean or cook? Help them start or finish the projects they’ve been putting off.

15. Teach a skill.

Another no-cost idea: If you have a knack for something that’s not a practical service – playing the guitar, for instance – maybe you could offer lessons. (And if the person it’s for does too, you can trade off without feeling the slightest guilt.)

16. Make something.

The NRF also expects to see 17.5 percent of consumers in crafts and fabric stores this year. Big names like Jo-Ann, AC Moore, and Michaels put out coupons almost every week that knock 40 or 50 percent off an item or type of supply. Sign up for their emails and check our deals page, and you can buy what you need cheaply in stages over the next month, with plenty of time to work on it.

Even if you’re not good at crafting stuff, they sell scrapbooking supplies. Those are kind of a neat keepsake in an age when we keep all our photos on Facebook.

17. Keep receipts.

Sometimes prices drop between when you buy and when you give – if that’s the case, retailers will sometimes refund the difference. And let’s face it, you need to keep them anyway. Somebody’s going to return something.

18. Stick with the same decor.

The NRF says shoppers will spend an average of $46.73 on decorations this year. Just this once, deck the halls with what you’ve already got – and then scoop up the deeply discounted decorations right after the holiday. Maintain that cycle and you’ll still have a new look every year, for much less.

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