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How to Save Money When Shopping for Holiday Gifts

How to Save Money When Shopping for Holiday Gifts

These tips will help you stick to your budget while snagging real bargains.

It's the most wonderful time of year, when everyone is in good spirits and generous in giving. But it's also a time of year when we spend a lot of money on holiday gifts for our children, our family, our kids' teachers, and colleagues. With all the great 'deals' at this time of year, it's easy to over spend. So how do you save money when shopping for presents and stick to your holiday gift budget? Read on for tips and tricks to snag a real deal and limit over spending.

It’s that time of year again, when gifts and toys are delivered free of charge to your living room, pre-wrapped and labeled, making every family member’s dreams come true. All you need to do is leave out a few cookies.

If only it were so.

In reality, holiday prep plays out more like this: You overpay for the popular toys your kids want. Giftwrap is surprisingly expensive—newspaper, anyone? In exasperation, you eat all the cookies.

Holiday shopping is difficult, but don’t lose hope. There are plenty of ways to save money. We’ve spoken to some experts who know just how you can control your seasonal spending; read on for their smart advice.
   

Pre-Shopping Strategies

Before you set foot in a brick-and-mortar store or click the “purchase” button, do the following:
    

Create a list and a budget.

“As you write down the names of everyone that you have to buy for, put a dollar amount next to each name and stick to it!” says Rachel Cruze, New York Times best-selling co-author, with her dad Dave Ramsey, of Smart Money Smart Kids. Download a free budgeting app such as EveryDollar, which has interactive visuals and goal-planning features. Another handy app, one for your phone, is Santa’s Bag. It includes holiday-specific features such as the ability to import receipts, plan budgets, create shopping lists, locate gifts, and track shopping progress.
   

Locate any unused gift cards you have.

You can spend them to buy holiday gifts, food, and décor, or sell them at a gift card exchange site such as Cardpool.com or Raise.com for some ready cash. (If you’re looking for gift cards, you can also purchase them on these sites at a percentage off face value.)
   

Sign up for cash-back sites that give you a rebate—typically 2-5 percent—on just about anything you buy online.

Popular sites include Ebates.com, Shopathome.com, Mrrebates.com, and TopCashback.com. They work very simply: You go to the cash-back site and locate the store you want to shop. Then you purchase your desired item to earn your rebate, which can be paid to you in a variety of ways. Ebates, for example, will send you your accumulated rebate every quarter in the form of a check, a PayPal deposit, or, in some instances, as a digital gift card.
   

Collect coupons.

Many consumers think coupons are relics from the past. Not so; they’ve just gone digital. So put down those scissors and go online. Some well-trafficked coupon sites include Coupons.com, TheKrazyCouponLady.com, RetailMeNot.com, and CouponSherpa.com. Most of the sites offer coupons that can be used in a physical or digital store. Additionally, Honey is a browser extension that will automatically apply all coupon codes available to find the one that will save you the most money at select online retailers.
   

Connect with stores on social media.

Sign up for online stores's newsletters, “like” their Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter, so you can be alerted to upcoming sales and promotions. You may end up getting an enormous amount of emails, but if you’re patient enough you may find what you’re looking for at a great price, and sometimes with free shipping too.

RELATED: Stores with Great Rewards Programs for Parents
   

While You’re Shopping

Now that you’ve planned and are ready to stock up on gifts, remember to:
   

Track the rise and fall of prices.

It’s difficult to pin down an item’s price during the hectic holidays; even Amazon changes the prices of individual items frequently. The site CamelCamelCamel.com is designed for shopping on Amazon—it generates alerts based on price and availability, so you can be notified when the price for a desired item drops to a predetermined point. In addition, the site has price history charts for more than 18 million Amazon items.
   

Be cyber-cart smart.

One way you can potentially score coupons to an online store is by providing your email address and adding merchandise to your cart—and then abandoning it. This may trigger an automated coupon to be delivered to your inbox. You may have been willing to purchase the items at full price, but by waiting a couple of days, you can buy your merchandise at 10-20 percent off.
   

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Harness the power of price-matching apps.

Whether you’re shopping online or at the mall, you can use a price-matching app to compare prices. The Flipp app brings up flyers from other stores, so you can easily determine where to find the best bargains. If the app shows a better price for an item at another store, you can show the cashier proof. (Many big box stores will match a lower price for the same item.) With Earny, your credit card and email link to the app so your past purchases can be tracked. If you’re eligible for a price adjustment you can get the money back automatically. Finally, InvisibleHand is a browser extension that notifies you if the product you’re shopping for is available for less from another retailer. A convenient button links you to the relevant page on the competing website.
   

Come to stores prepared to crunch numbers.

If you’re headed to a brick-and-mortar shop, have a calculator available so you can figure out the exact price of an item, including any discounts and sales tax. (You may lose the ability to do calculations in your head when you’re tired and the store is crowded).
   

Bring cold, hard cash.

“You actually spend less when you use cash,” Cruze explains. “Cash is emotional. You feel it when you pay with tangible currency. You don’t get that same sensation when you swipe a piece of plastic. Also, you’ll be less anxious when you use cash because you know to stop spending when the money runs out. Even if you can’t buy everything you want, you’ll still feel relieved about not having to make a payment in the new year!”
   

Shop on Black Friday—or not.

If you’re convinced that Black Friday offers the best deals, then head to the mall in the wee hours. Indeed, Black Friday does have incomparable sales, such as classic toys at 40-50 percent off. If you’d rather bypass the chaos, however, venture out later in the day. “All the heavily promoted items will probably be gone, but you can still find pretty good deals while avoiding the crazy crowds that pile in when the doors open,” Cruze says.
   

Set your sights on Cyber Monday, which is the Black Friday of the Internet.

You can find a lot of good deals without having to camp out in a parking lot all night, Cruze says. In addition to shopping the sales at online stores, you may want to browse eBay. The reason? Some shoppers hit the stores on Black Friday to purchase popular items at rock-bottom prices and then sell them for a profit on eBay. So with a bit of luck, you may be able to pick up that gift at only a small premium over its Black Friday price.

RELATED: How to Avoid Cyber-Scams When Shopping Online
   

Don’t overlook off-peak shopping times.

After the big sale days are over, try either shopping online on Tuesdays, as cyber retailers tend to offer their best deals on that day, or at brick-and-mortar stores in the evenings. Some retailers may have the next day’s early-morning sales already in effect, saving you from having to rise at the crack of dawn.
   

Look for last-minute steals.

For all the procrastinators out there, you may even do well shopping late in the season. Some of the best deals arrive the week before Christmas, according to the New York Times.
   

Outsmart the shopping environment.

Sure, you love stores’ holiday music and ambience—but they’re up to no good. Studies have shown that Christmas songs evoke nostalgia and generosity, leading to larger purchases, explains Mari Corella, a retail specialist who has worked for major retailers such as Sears and Saks Fifth Avenue. The same is true of scent. “During the holidays, stores often smell of gingerbread and pine, invoking a sense of warmth,” she says, leading to—yep—more spending. Some experts recommend wearing headphones with soothing music playing to calm you during the stress of shopping. (Can you guess what stress leads to?)

Even the placement of products is designed to make you spend more. Brands pay to have their items on the end of the aisles or at eye level, Corella shares: “The cost of this additional exposure is added to the cost of the product.” She recommends browsing the entire section to make sure you’re getting the best price.
   

Think out of the (gift) box.

Not everything you buy has to be expensive or from a popular retailer. Consider shopping at thrift shops for vintage items, or gathering the family together to make DIY gifts, such as personalized stationery for the grandparents. Something handmade, and from the heart, is priceless—in every sense of the word.

RELATED: Indulge in Gift-Giving Instincts Without Spoiling Your Kids