The holiday season is also the biggest shopping season of the year. The time period from Black Friday through December 24th can mean the difference between an annual profit or a loss for some retailers. As a consequence, retailers advertise sales, extend store hours, and open online Internet storefronts to fulfill the demand for Christmas gifts. Almost two-thirds of shoppers will “showroom” their purchases by checking and comparing products online before venturing into a brick-and-mortar store, and according to The Christian Science Monitor, online retailer Amazon has aggressively matched or beat prices of retail giants such as Best Buy and Walmart.
The holidays are filled with emotion, not the least of which is a desire to give your loved ones the best gifts possible. Unfortunately, we tend to associate value with price and, as a result, spend much more than we can afford. Retailers understand how to trigger your emotional buttons, encouraging you to spend more, rather than less. So in spite of all the hubbub, it’s paramount to protect yourself and carefully watch how much you spend this season.
Ways to Save Money Holiday Shopping
1. Make a Budget and a List
Determine how much money you can afford to spend on all of your Christmas purchases before shopping. While it is ideal to spend only what you have on hand, that is unrealistic for many people – buying on credit is as much a part of the season as Christmas trees and tinsel. However, it is important to avoid spending an amount that you cannot fully repay in three months. For example, if you have $300 remaining at the end of the month after paying all of your bills and setting aside some savings, your budget should be no greater than $900 for Christmas gifts – and preferably less.
When you know how much you can afford to spend, create a list of gift recipients and prioritize them by the maximum amounts that you intend to spend on their gift. Large families often use a lottery process, where each adult purchases one nice gift for a single family member determined by random draw, thereby avoiding the expense of multiple gifts. Gifts for young children usually cost less than adult gifts unless you are buying electronics. If the total cost of your gift giving exceeds your budget, you can pare everyone down proportionately, eliminate some gifts, or combine with others who will be giving a gift to the same recipient to share the cost.
2. Regularly Compare Prices
As the cost of a potential gift increases, you can save money by comparing competitive products and identifying the merchant that offers the best deal. For example, an Microsoft Xbox 360 might sell for $180 at Walmart, Best Buy, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Amazon, while a Sony Playstation 3 – an equally popular gaming platform – retails for $250 at Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart. Choosing one versus the other is an $80 decision. Regularly checking prices of products you want to purchase can enable you to buy at the optimum time for the lowest price.
3. Avoid Impulse Purchases
Just as you don’t shop for groceries when you are hungry, don’t shop for Christmas gifts when your emotions and the spirit of the season may overwhelm good sense. No large ticket item should ever be bought without comparison shopping. Making a mistake on a $15 video game is one thing; paying $2,000 for a home video system is quite another.
4. Keep Your Receipts
While some retailers accept return items without proof of purchase, they are generally not legally obligated to do so. Some sale items are clearly labeled to be sold “as is” without identifying the reason for the restriction. Furthermore, many retailers simply repackage a returned product and resell it as new. This practice, combined with the notorious lack of dependability for electronic products, increases the possibility that your gift will be opened, plugged in, and fail to work.
Buying the wrong size of shirt or sweater is common, and sometimes your gift duplicates a product already owned by the recipient. It is always wise to keep receipts as proof of purchase in the event a return or replacement is necessary.
5. Buy Presents Early or Late
The lowest prices are often found after the seasonal sales period has ended, as retailers often mark down products to reduce unsold inventory. Consider giving a gift that might be described or illustrated at Christmas, but purchased and delivered after the holidays. This is particularly applicable for expensive items such as electronics, furniture, and automobiles.
You can also shop for the following Christmas in early January, especially for those items that are unlikely to change significantly during the coming year. The savings can more than offset the costs of storage.
Ways to Shop Safely
The Christmas season brings out shoppers, and shoppers attract pickpockets, purse snatchers, and identity thieves eager to harvest the new crop of potential victims. Nothing can put a damper on the holiday spirit like being the victim of a crime, so do what you can to ensure that your holidays are happy and safe:
6. Carry a Single Credit Card
Carrying large amounts of cash or multiple credit cards is neither wise nor necessary for most people. If your purse or wallet is stolen or the card number compromised, the process to stop charges on a single card is easier than having to deal with multiple cards and enduring the delay until new cards are issued. Therefore, a single credit card with a low limit is perfect for most shopping trips and getting cash is relatively easy anywhere in the U.S., especially in large shopping areas or malls.
Pay attention to how your card is used – never let someone walk away with your card out of sight, whether in a store or a restaurant. And save your receipts so you can check them against the charges on your monthly statement.
7. Use Paypal for Online Purchases
While major retailers and online merchants offer secure connections, there is always the possibility that a commercial organization can be hacked – the more transactions, the more attractive target for an enterprising computer hacker. Open a Paypal account and tie it to a credit card with a maximum daily spending limit (not your checking account) for online purchases. There is no cost to you as a buyer for this extra level of security, and Paypal will reimburse you for the full cost of any item purchased online that doesn’t arrive or match the seller’s description.
8. Store Presents in Locked Car Trunks
Breaking a car window to gain access to presents or other valuable items is a common occurrence in the parking lots of shopping malls. Many shoppers, focused on their own shopping missions, fail to notice suspicious characters just waiting for the right opportunity to break a window, reach in, grab packages, and be gone in else than a minute.
When storing purchases in your car, lock them in the trunk where they will be hidden. If you notice someone watching you store the presents, consider getting into your car and driving to a new parking place – thieves are on the lookout for people who rush to store their purchases then rush to return to shopping, not the person just driving into a lot to begin shopping.
If you use a valet service at your mall or store, use a “valet key,” which only allows the car doors to open and the car to be started, not access to the trunk or glove box. Valets and parking lot attendants are usually not well-paid, and are often hired without background checks.
9. Be Aware of Your Surroundings
The best protection against theft or assault is being in lighted places with plenty of people around. Some experts advise that men keep their wallets in a front pocket, and that women carry their purses with the strap over their shoulder and around their necks while grasping the purse with a hand. This practice can deter pickpockets who prefer easier victims. If you have any concerns about walking to your car with or without packages, ask a store security person to accompany you.
10. Use Store Delivery
Never load your arms with so many purchases that it is difficult to see, walk, or carry the packages safely. If you have to use both hands to carry the load, you will be vulnerable to falls, shoves, grabs, or purse snatching with packages scattered on the ground as the culprit makes his escape. Don’t be hesitant to ask the store to make a delivery or store your packages until you can safely retrieve them.
The holidays are a joyous occasion, and you want to assure that your experience this year meets your expectations. Ensuring that you spend what you can afford, your purchases meet expectations, and your person and property are safe will keep your holidays stress-free and enjoyable.
How do you protect yourself during the holidays?