Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.
Black Friday. Cyber Monday. These dates stick in our minds as the best time of the year to get a great deal on anything we want to buy. The truth is that while many retailers offer great prices – and maybe even their lowest prices of the year – on certain items during Thanksgiving and Cyber Week, not everything is marked down to an all-time low. Some products will be cheaper another time of year; some popular buys aren’t even on sale.
Read this smart shopper’s guide to find out what to buy on Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2021, what to skip if you truly want the lowest price, and additional tips for saving money during Thanksgiving holiday sales.
How this Black Friday will be different
Beginning in 2020, it seems like “the new normal” has been that nothing is “normal.”
“Everything is being disrupted by supply chain disruptions and labor disruptions,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at DealNews.com. “The only things you can safely say aren’t disrupted are digital items: Digital gift cards, e-books, audiobooks. If you want a physical copy of a book, go ahead and preorder, because once the current supply is depleted it’s going to take a while to get more.”
One example of how the 2021 shopping season is different: That special gift you’re planning to buy may get stuck in a shipping port in California until after Black Friday. Reuters news service recently published an article with the word “Containergeddon” in the headline, detailing how big U.S. retailers are hiring their own cargo ships to bypass the logjam.
“If you want your items in time, it’s in your interest to either shop in person or order them as soon as possible, especially if there’s a chance that something is going to be backordered,” Ramhold added. “Plan for shipping delays and order as soon as you can.”
What to buy on Black Friday (and before)
Although supply chain disruptions will make shopping more of a challenge this year, a general rule of thumb is that electronics are the thing to buy on Black Friday, and that’s likely to stay the same.
“Tech overall will still be a big feature,” said Ramhold. For example, she said, “expect really good offers on brand-new smartphones. The biggest problem is going to be the time frame in which you get it. The offers may be online only and it may take longer to get them, but I fully expect to see the same type of things dominating Black Friday: TVs, computers, smart-home devices. We may also see longer-lasting offers for smart lightbulbs, smartphone accessories, rather than on the items themselves.”
“We’ve already seen retailers selling Chromebooks for $99; we’ll undoubtedly see a 32-inch TV for $100 or less. The discounts may not be as good [as in 2020], but there’s not going to be a huge difference.”
Cyber Monday and Travel Tuesday
Cyber Monday will have its own deals, so it’s worth checking out those sales, even if you already shopped Black Friday. In the past, video games, toys, and clothing have been hot Cyber Monday buys.
“Cyber Monday is generally a great time to find deals on travel including airline bookings and hotel stays,” says money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. “I typically see good deals available through third-party booking sites, but you can also check a favorite airline or hotel brand’s site directly to see what types of offers you can get.”
Woroch also notes that you can find great deals on more unexpected purchases, such as “spa treatments, medical services like dental care, gym memberships, and streaming services.”
Cyber Monday and Travel Tuesday are typically days when travel aggregators, such as Travelocity, offer coupons and discounts.
What not to buy on Black Friday
If your goal is getting the absolutely best deal, and not simply getting holiday gifts at a reasonable price, you should know that certain categories of goods are not greatly discounted on Black Friday.
“Generally speaking, you want to avoid winter gear and apparel like coats and boots, holiday decorations and even gift wrap,” warns Woroch. “Although you may see a small savings of 10 to 20% off some of this merchandise, the real deals come closer to Christmas or after the holiday.”
If it’s holiday decorations you’re after, the discounts start the week of Christmas, with the best savings after the holiday. If you want to save, buy your gift wrap, bags, and twinkle lights after Christmas to save for next year’s celebrations. However, you might find specific Christmas items on sale during Black Friday, so keep an eye out.
In general, gift cards are best purchased in December, winter apparel and sporting gear at the end of the season, and linens in January.
Black Friday money-saving tips
Retail experts have plenty of tips for saving during Black Friday and Thanksgiving week than just knowing what is best to buy.
Consider refurbished items.
You might have not considered “buying used” before, but if you want tech items and don’t want to wait, this may be the year to try something new and save money.
“Most consumers probably have a very specific stance on purchasing refurbished items,” Ramhold said. “If you’ve never purchased [refurbished] before, look for reputable resellers. Ebay has a certified reseller program; Best Buy has refurbished items. Amazon has refurbished items from its own electronics line.
“Choose ‘certified refurbished’ or ‘factory refurbished.’ Open box is an even better option, but you won’t save as much. It might mean you don’t have the necessary accessories,” like a charging cord that might be missing.
Finally, she said, “read the fine print and check the warranty.” And check this Consumer Reports guide to buying refurbished items for more tips.
Maximize credit card benefits (but use them wisely!)
Pay for your Black Friday purchases with credit cards that give you rewards points or cash back, so you are profiting from your shopping expenses. Or, sign up for a new card right before Black Friday, and use your holiday shopping to earn a bonus. An important caveat: Signing up for a lot of new cards can hurt your credit rating. And if you don’t pay off your entire credit-card balance every month, the interest will almost always erase any benefit from a sale price or bonus offer.
A doorbuster deal looks even better when you can use coupons to knock a few more dollars off the price. Many retailers issue coupons that are good on Black Friday. Woroch recommends a browser tool like Cently, which automatically finds the best coupons to use on your online order, or bookmarking coupon sites, such as CouponFollow.com, so you can find discounts on the spot as you make your Black Friday or Cyber Monday purchases.
Check online for holiday deals from local businesses.
“You’d be surprised how many local businesses have Facebook pages or Instagram accounts and offer Black Friday deals online,” said Michael Bonebright, a former senior blog editor at DealNews.com. Not only do you get a great deal, but you’re supporting local businesses and not just big-box stores during a challenging time for retailers. Look for gift card offers to support establishments you might not be going to now, but will want to in the future.
Small Business Saturday is promoted by American Express, so cardholders should look for additional discounts or incentives when buying from small businesses, using their credit card, during Thanksgiving week.
Share receipts to earn money.
Free cash-back apps, like Swagbucks, Ibotta or Fetch Rewards, give you points for uploading receipts from your Black Friday (and year-round) shopping trips. You can redeem the points for gift cards to stores such as Walmart, Target, and Amazon. The cards either make great free gifts or will help you spend less on future winter sales.
How to find top 2021 Black Friday deals
Last year, we listed some top Black Friday deals, but this year Black Friday is a rolling event that has already begun, with major retailers posting many one-day or limited-time sales on their websites. With that (and supply-chain challenges) in mind, this year’s best strategy is to read our article on the best shopping apps for Black Friday 2021 and let the deals come to you. Another option that doesn’t involve mobile devices is to check your favorite retailers’ websites or deal sites like BlackFriday.com and DealNews.com daily.