Plan ahead and shop smart this holiday season

By for CAES News

After the Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie have been reduced to leftovers, football games are over, and the guests have headed home, the holiday shopping season officially begins. Serious shoppers sort through mountains of advertisements to plan for the big day. For many bargain hunters, holiday sales the day after Thanksgiving really get the adrenaline going.

While shopping smart is important every month, the stakes are especially high after Thanksgiving. Starting your holiday shopping early helps. But with a little forethought, even procrastinators can benefit from shopping smart.

Create a spending plan

Shopping smart means developing a sound spending plan for the holidays. With economic conditions still shaky, now is not the time to pile up a lot of holiday debt. Know how much money you can reasonably afford to spend. To avoid financial problems in 2012, limit your spending to the cash you have set aside for the season.

Think creatively. Remember, it is the thought that counts. Homemade gifts, whether food, clothing, or crafts, may be appreciated more than something purchased at the local big box store. Gifts of time for baby-sitting, car-washing or house-cleaning may also be well-received.

Your holiday spending plan is not just about the gifts you plan to buy. Remember to include parties, greeting cards, charitable giving, clothes to wear to holiday functions, and other things that make your holiday season joyful.

Compare ads and stick to your plan

At the store, keep your spending plan and shopping list in hand. Think carefully about each purchase. Avoid deciding on an item in the spur of the moment. Take your time. Think about your needs and the amount of money you have.

Use ads appearing in newspapers and mailboxes around Thanksgiving to plan your purchases. Compare offerings from different stores to find the best values. Once you decide on a particular item, compare prices, features, quality and charges for installation, delivery and service. Sometimes the cost to use and maintain an item makes selecting a more expensive model the cheaper option.

Save gas and time by shopping online

To conserve gasoline, avoid going from store to store. Instead, use the phone and Internet to find information. Particularly for gifts you need to send out of town, it is often much cheaper to order the desired items for direct shipment to the recipient.

Shopping online can also be an easy way to locate special or unique gifts. But, be careful. Use a secure browser, shop with companies you know, and keep your passwords creative and private. Pay particular attention to shipping charges, and be sure to print out and keep records of your purchases.

Retailers have rolled out holiday items earlier than ever this year. Sales may also start earlier as retailers seek to clear out merchandise. That means plenty of bargains, but you will need to shop carefully to find them.

As the holidays approach, many retailers will slash prices so the best deals may be still to come. Waiting for last minute price cuts makes sense for items that are not in short supply.

Shop for quality, not low price

Examine factory seconds and irregulars carefully. These items have flaws or imperfections. Find the flaw and decide if it will make a difference. Look in your newspaper classified ads for items, too. Buying person-to-person often saves money.

Bargains that sound too good to be true are usually just that. Expect to pay a fair and reasonable price for goods and services. Read labels, seals, tags and instruction booklets. Ask questions. Get the facts before you buy. Find out what is promised, who stands behind the promises and what you must do to benefit from the warranty. Return a purchase that is damaged, did not provide reasonable wear or otherwise live up to the guarantee.

Overspending can ruin the holidays and the months that follow. Shopping smart means planning ahead and sticking to your plan. Spending only as much as you can afford will make the holidays better for you and your family--even if they do not receive everything on their wish list.

Michael Rupured is a financial specialist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.
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