The holiday shopping season officially starts Thanksgiving Day. Here's your official savings guide.
Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday. How does a savvy shopper find the best deals over this extra-long holiday-shopping weekend?
Those are some detailed numbers, but here’s a statistic I have yet to see researched: How much time will shoppers spend in stores and online this holiday season?
That leads to my first crucial piece of advice…
1. Time is family
If you’re going to scour the mall and Internet for the best deals, you need to factor in your own valuable hours. You’ve heard the expression, “Time is money.” During the holidays, “time is family.”
Every hour you spend trying to save a dollar is an hour you could be sharing with friends and family. It may seem odd for a personal finance expert and CPA like myself to discourage you from doing all you can to save, but I’m also a father.
Remember, those gifts you’re buying at a discount have a purpose: Make the people you give them to smile. They’ll also smile from simply having you around.
That said, let’s talk about saving money. That doesn’t start with shopping, however…
2. Stop before you shop
No one likes sitting down and writing up a budget. That’s not nearly as much fun as buying gifts. You can, however, make it less boring by doing it like this:
- Start with names, not dollars. Jot down the people you want to buy for. If possible put them in order of how much you want to spend.
- Decide on a total. The average, as I mentioned above, is around $800. Do you have that much in savings? Or do you plan to run up your credit cards? Of course, I hate the charge-now-pay-later philosophy, but I realize the realities I’m dealing with. So make yourself a promise and a deal: For every dollar I charge, I’ll make sure I have a dollar in savings.
- Put dollars to names. Decide how much you want to spend on each person before you search for the perfect gift. Don’t worry, if you find a gift that exceeds the budgeted amount, you can borrow from further down the list.
3. Learn before you return
At any other time of the year, return policies are a minor detail. Not so when you’re buying gifts for someone with little evidence they’ll really like it. Don’t forget to ask about the rules for returns.
Specifically, ask if there’s a “restocking fee,” which is a significant charge with no basis in reality — this fee is never calculated on the actual cost of putting the item back out for sale. It’s simply to discourage you from returning the item in the first place.
Much more rare but equally devious: Some return policies credit you with the price at the time you return it, not what you paid for it. So if an item is now deeply discounted for after-holiday sale, that’s all you’ll get for it.
4. Don’t worry about the days
In a survey this month of 10,000 shoppers, 87 percent said they plan to shop on Black Friday. That means everything is going to be sold at a deep discount, right?
I live in Florida near Sawgrass Mills, the nation’s largest discount mall. To walk it all is to travel a mile, and deals do abound. However, it’s well known to us locals that some items cost full price. Merchants have learned that unprepared shoppers won’t always price-compare.
The same tactic applies to Black Friday and even Thanksgiving Thursday store openings. Don’t assume everything with a red tag is the cheapest you can find. If you have a smartphone, do a quick search just to make sure.
5. Don’t forget the least of the days
Small Business Saturday is the runt of the litter, overshadowed by the controversy of Thanksgiving Day shopping, the history of Black Friday, and the novelty of Cyber Monday.
Indeed, some skepticism is warranted, since American Express created the holiday. However, small businesses in your area will determine whether the deals are worth your time and effort. One advantage to frequenting small business is that they sometimes offer products you can’t find in big-box stores, simply because those products are too niche.
Bottom line: Holiday shopping doesn’t have to be a frantic race on Black Friday. Pace yourself and enjoy yourself.
Howard Dvorkin is a CPA and chairman of Debt.com, an educational resource for those who want to conquer all forms of debt in their lives.