If you’re at all like me, you love Christmas, but you could do without the stress and expense of all that Christmas shopping brings. A full years worth of shopping and buying is condensed into a single short 4-5 week space of time that leaves you worn out and nearly broke by the time it’s over. (Are we having fun yet???)
Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years that will save money, time and stress, freeing you up to actually enjoy the season…
Amazon.com and other online retailers
Among a long laundry list of gifts this year, my wife wants the first and second season collections of the TV show Vampire Diaries. We checked them out at Target–$54(!)—but a quick check on Amazon.com shows we can get them for only $12.99, or less than a quarter of the price! I’m not saying we should buy everything online, but we should certainly set a price threshold above which checking out online alternatives becomes routine. The savings can be substantial.
But there’s even more benefit to shopping online: it saves us the time (driving, parking, standing in line) and expenses (gas and a meal on the fly) that are typical when we head out to the mall. If I can save money, and do it from the comfort of my own home, then it’s a no-brainer. Just make sure that you do it in time to allow for delivery; December 24th will be too late!
I have a confession. This Thanksgiving—or as it will undoubtedly soon be known, Black Friday Eve—at about 10:30 pm, I took my kids to Walmart to see if we could take advantage of some of their door buster sales. A conscientious objector, my wife stayed home. I wish I had.
Walmart was offering 15 inch HP laptop computers, regularly $388, for $248. Great deal right? That’s what the other 2-3,000 patrons at the store thought too. The operative jargon in their ad flyers was “while supplies last”. Maybe they had 100 of them, maybe they had ten, but however many they had, they were sold out well before midnight when the cash registers officially opened for business.
As a consolation, we ended up buying a printer/scanner for $19 that regularly sells for $58, but somehow that didn’t make the experience any better. We spent about 20 minutes circling the parking lot looking for an available parking space, and then another 10 minutes walking to the store once we found one. Inside the lines had already swamped the cash registers, advertised specials had been cleaned out, and merchandise was strewn all over the floors. We didn’t get out with our “deal” until 1 am.
Some way to spend Thanksgiving night, huh? But it wasn’t as bad for us as for the “winners” in the discount laptop competition—many of them found that the laptops they’d taken were nearly identical in every detail except for one thing: the price! The B version was more then $100 higher. Two hours in line only to find out that they didn’t have the deal they had come in for.
But it wasn’t a total loss, after all the store had record sales that night!
And that’s the whole point. What’s good for the store is usually bad for the customer. Black Friday, weekend specials and other manufactured urgency events are no place for a frugal customer. This season, try to do the bulk of your shopping on early weeknights. Monday and Tuesday are best, but the closer you get to the weekend, the bigger the crowds and the more chaos, neither of which are conducive to a pleasant shopping experience.
I find that by shopping early in the week I experience…
- Smaller crowds, which means more parking, shorter lines and less stress
- Because of the above, you’ll be in a better position to take advantage of sales and specials
- Less likelihood of the empty shelf syndrome that heavy shopping days produce
- By getting shopping done early in the week, theres less pressure as you move toward the end of the week
- More free time on weekends for watching Christmas specials and visiting with family and friends and actually enjoying the holiday season!
Check websites for specials and coupons before Christmas shopping
With all of the activity that the Christmas season brings, a few things have to go just to make it all doable. For me, that means the mail gets little more than a cursory review, and anything that requires any detailed reading is filed on the “Later Stack”— as in later after the holidays. (When I was in the mortgage business and we’d get people’s credit explanation letters, the volume and slow pace of the mail at Christmas was close to the #1 reason for late bill payments!)
Let’s face it, there’s more junk mail at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Passing it over may save time, but it can also cost money. There are usually valuable specials and coupons in those piles of what we like to call junk mail. But there’s a way around this, even if you don’t have time to sift through the waves of mail that hit during this time of year. Before you go shopping, check out the websites of any stores you plan to hit. They’ll have printable coupons—the same ones that come by mail—and sometimes a special offer or two that won’t be in their printed ads. And with the one day sales most stores offer, checking websites will be the very best way to stay on top of who’s doing it and when.
We shop at JC Penney a good bit and while you can save a lot of money doing so, their coupons and specials tend to be a bit of a matrix. Last night we went there specifically to take advantage of a 20% off coupon special and a $10 customer appreciation coupon, and both are over and above any marked specials in the store. You’d have to go to their website to know which days this combination works, and it changes from day to day like a revolving door. We saved about 50% off of regular prices, so it’s worth the search.
2-3 minutes on each website is all you’ll need. If you have down time at work and your employer doesn’t mind a little bit of web surfing, take advantage of that time to check out what the stores have to offer. You’ll save time and be better organized for your shopping sprees. You might even decide which stores to shop based on which have the better offers that night.
Do you have a few people on your gift giving list this year that you just don’t know what gift to get them? I’ll bet you do. And can we be completely honest about something else? Sometimes we receive gifts that obviously take a lot of thought and even expense on the part of the gift giver, but…what they got us isn’t something we really like. Have you ever been the gift giver in that exchange? Both situations are uncomfortable, but there’s no need to struggle to get around them. When in doubt, just use gift cards!
Some people don’t like giving gift cards (“there’s no thought in buying someone a gift card”) but if you choose the cards wisely they’re likely to be a bigger hit than buying presents people will neither like nor use, just for the purpose of giving something. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most people would gladly exchange “thought” for gift usability anyway, and gift cards are nothing if not usable.
When gift cards become a problem it’s usually because they’re purchased at stores with limited use and given to someone who either doesn’t have a store in their local area, or has no real interest in- or need for- what the store sells. An example would be buying a gift card to the Sports Authority for a person who doesn’t play sports.
You want to give gift cards that are as universal as possible. Visa gift cards can be used anywhere Visa is accepted, which means they’re especially good for those people on your list who you don’t have a clue what to buy for (teenagers!). They’re available at most large chain stores for the cost of the gift amount plus a small fee, and they come in various denominations.
Here’s another reason to give gift cards: There are many people who have fallen on hard times—people for whom a gift card could be far more valuable than an actual gift. Visa cards, grocery store cards, or gift cards to widely shopped stores such as Target, Walmart or Home Depot would be excellent gifts for struggling families and individuals. If you feel that a gift card might be an acknowledgement of their struggles, buy an inexpensive token gift and attach the gift card to it. They’ll have a present to open, plus a much needed source of ready cash. Perfect!
What are you doing to save on money, time and stress this Christmas season?