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According to the National Retail Federation, holiday sales are expected to increase 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year – the most optimistic forecast the market-research firm has released since the recession began back in 2008.
But even if shoppers are feeling more upbeat about their finances this year, no one wants to break the bank when buying gifts. According to the NRF, the average holiday shopper will spend $750 on gifts, cards, decor, and more.
Below, you’ll find ways to save on holiday gifts without compromising quality:
1. Make a list, check it twice
Make a list of all the people you plan to buy gifts for, as well as what you’d like to buy each person. Stick to your choices – you’ll be less likely to splurge with a solid plan.
2. Set a budget
Assign a dollar amount to each person on your gift list. Knowing you’ll spend $50 on your mother, $25 on your aunt, and so on is usually a more cost-effective plan than estimating, “I’m going to spend no more than $500 on gifts this year.”
3. Buy for groups when it makes sense
Group people in your list by gift ideas or cost level. For example, if you’re planning to attend several holiday parties, ask the liquor store clerk to recommend an affordable bottle, get a case of it, and ask for a discount since you’re buying in bulk. Another idea: If you need to buy a gift for a couple, get them one gift to share (think gift card for dinner or a movie), rather than individual items.
4. Start early
Give yourself a head start and you’ll be more likely to land the best deals, find the most creative gift options, and avoid making last-minute impulse buys. Successful holiday shopping requires organization, which means planning well in advance.
5. Avoid impulse shopping, especially for yourself
It’s easy to buy for yourself when you’re shopping for others. To avoid this, bring a list and stick to it. If necessary, consider bringing no more money with you than you intend to spend on others. If this means bringing cash only and leaving the debit and credit cards at home, then do so.
6. Search for coupon codes
Discount codes are easy to find, so there’s no excuse not to use them to your advantage. I never make an online purchase without visiting RetailMeNot first. CouponSherpa is another great site that offers online and printable coupons. Or, just use your favorite search engine: type in the brand and/or item, along with the word “coupon.”
7. Download holiday shopping apps
There’s an app for everything, and shopping is certainly no exception. These are a few of our favorites – and they’re free:
RedLaser: After you identify your location, scan an item or do a search for it on the app. You’ll get both online prices and see which nearby store is selling it at the cheapest price.
Armadealo: This app provides a listing of malls in your area, as well as a listing of sales at stores in the malls.
Decide.com: Based on historical data, this app tells you whether you should buy an item now or wait for a price drop.
8. Comparison shop
You can find some great deals online, but regardless of whether you plan to purchase on the Internet or in a retail store, do some research first. You won’t know whether a particular store will have what you’re looking for and at the best price unless you’ve looked online first. Comparison-shopping sites like PriceGrabber.com, Pricewatch.com, and Shopping.com can help you save a bundle and will tell you where you should buy.
9. Tap into social media
Follow your favorite stores on Twitter or “like” them on Facebook.
10. Buy discounted gift cards
Buy discounted gift cards ahead of time, and you’ll save up to 35 percent on top of sales, coupons, and other discounts. Decide what you plan to buy and where, and then buy the appropriate gifts cards at a discount. Or you can simply give these cards as gifts to those on your list. Check out our story Best Sites for Buying Discounted Gift Cards for some helpful tips.
11. Take advantage of gift card freebies
In Gift Card Freebies for the 2012 Holidays, we list restaurants, retail stores, and entertainment offering free promotional cards when you purchase a gift card this holiday season. Whether you’re interested in L.L. Bean, Olive Garden, or Brunswick Bowling, you can earn extra gift-card cash just for making a purchase.
12. Buy last year’s electronics models
Last year’s electronics often work just as well as this year’s, and can cost 25 percent less, according to Good Housekeeping.
13. Consider outlet stores
Outlet stores can be a great place to find steep discounts. Just be sure you know how to be a savvy shopper before venturing out. Check out 10 Tips to Save on Outlet Shopping for advice, like knowing when to time your shopping trip and how to save more by joining outlet clubs, including Premium Outlets’ free VIP Club and TangerClub.
14. Ask for a refund if prices fall after you make a purchase
Within a reasonable time period, it’s OK to go back to a store and ask for a refund if the item you bought dropped significantly in price after you purchased it. In 10 Ways to Get the Absolute Best Price Online, we suggest if you’ve bought something and see a price drop, take a screenshot, email it to the store’s customer service and ask for a refund.
15. Look for free shipping
Many retailers offer free shipping with a minimum amount spent online. Also look into Free Shipping Day (Dec. 17 this year), when thousands of merchants offer no-cost shipping and guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.
16. Offer a service as a gift
Offer to cook a meal for your friend, babysit for your sister, or start a book club (to be hosted at your house). Are you a financial planner and have a brother-in-law who’s a Spanish tutor? Consider swapping services as an alternative to buying gifts.
17. Make a gift
Sometimes you just can’t put a price tag on homemade gifts. Consider making a loved one a CD of their favorite songs, or a scrapbook using pictures they’ve posted on Facebook of their European travels. Knit a sweater or scarf for a family member or friend. Ornaments, wreaths, and centerpieces are other inexpensive options.
18. Don’t be afraid to ask for gift ideas
Not sure what to buy a family member or friend? Rather than overspending on something you’re not confident they’ll like, simply ask what’s on their wish lists. You could end up spending less money on something you know they’ll love.
19. Split the difference
If you have a great gift idea in mind that exceeds your budget, talk to friends and family about splitting sharing the cost. If your niece wants a tablet for college, or your dad could use a new leaf blower, having several people chip in could be well worth it.
20. Think about buying used
Buying used doesn’t always mean second-rate. You can find some great deals on antiques, collectors’ items, books, or even toys by shopping at your nearby thrift store or a neighbor’s garage sale.
21. Get rebates or rewards
Doing all your holiday shopping with a rewards credit card is one way to get a little back. If you don’t have or don’t want to use a credit card, shop through referral sites like eBates for cash-back bonuses.
22. Build gift baskets
Dollar stores might sound like an odd place to shop for gifts, but not if you’re creative. You can create “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.
23. Make your own greeting cards
You may choose to skip gift cards altogether or use labels or tags instead. But if you’re intent on adding a special touch, check out our story The 20-Cent Greeting Card for simple steps to craft a better card at a fraction of the cost.
24. Save on gift wrap
Look around your house for materials you already have that could function as gift wrap, such as newspaper, colored construction paper, or fabric. Also check to see if you have any lightly-used gift bags that could be used a second time around.
A gift you didn’t love could be something someone else will treasure. Just make sure you’re mindful if you regift. Obviously you won’t want to give the sweater your aunt gave you last holiday season to your sister if both your aunt and sister were present during last year’s gift exchange. Items like books, DVDs, lotions, and perfumes are usually safe regifting options.
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