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10 Ways to Stick to Your Holiday Budget

Take your time, pay with cash and shop hard for the best bargains

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Doesn’t it seem as if everything is doing its darnedest to bust your holiday shopping budget this year?

There’s inflation, which already seems to be tipping the scales towards pricier gifts this season. There’s the continuing pandemic blowback, which seems to have resulted in a scarcity of options for certain gifts — making some of those that are available more expensive. Finally, most of us are out of practice. After the pandemic turned holiday shopping on its head, we are rusty using the best tricks of the trade to stay within budget this holiday.

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Perhaps these 10 tips from retail experts will help remove the rust and set you back on the path to shopping within your 2021 holiday budget.

1. Don’t wait until the last minute

Although it may sound slightly contradictory, getting an early start on holiday shopping will ultimately save you money, says David Sykes, head of Klarna US. Even though it might seem like an early start would result in spending more, it actually is the best way to avoid last-minute overspending and impulse buying, he says. Some 27 percent of Gen Xers and 19 percent of boomers began their holiday shopping before Halloween, which helps to spread out the cost of gift-giving over the course of the season, according to Klarna’s 2021 "Holidays Unwrapped" report. With supply chain issues making some products scarce this year, waiting too long to start shopping can lead to going over budget.

2. Create an email address just for retailers

The last thing you want to do is share your personal email address with every retailer. You’ll wind up with an avalanche of spam that will bury your inbox. But you can create a second email address that’s specifically for this purpose: to share with retailers for updates on discounts and deals, says Kristen Gall, president of Rakuten Rewards. “A lot of deals are sent by emails exclusively from the stores,” Gall says.

3. Price match with gusto

Many retailers — including Target, Walmart and Best Buy — will often match the competition’s prices when you present them with clear proof of a competitor’s lowball pricing, Gall says. If you have a loyalty to one store — but find a lower price at another — simply bring the proof of pricing, such as a printed ad, into the store you prefer and there’s a reasonably good chance that it will match it, she says. But keep in mind, there’s typically a strict window of time during which stores are willing to match competitor pricing, so make sure you’re familiar with the time limits.

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4. Charitable donations can be money-savers

Making charitable donations in someone’s name for the holidays not only helps you — and the receiver — feel better about doing the right thing, but it also can help you save money in two ways, says Gall. For example, she recently made a donation in her daughter’s name to the World Wildlife Fund. For one thing, the person who receives the gift doesn’t know the specific amount you sent — unless you tell them. They only know that a donation has been made in their name. So even relatively small donations can feel big. What’s more, for this particular donation, her daughter also was sent a small stuffed panda bear as a thank-you. Other charities offer things like T-shirts or socks to contributors. “This way you have something that you can wrap up and send that memorializes the contribution,” she says. You can also deduct up to $300 in cash charitable contributions ($600 for couples) without itemizing on your federal income tax return. 

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5. Ignore retail sales that look too good to be true

If a retailer’s holiday sale looks too good to be true, it probably is, says Brad Godwin, regional vice president, Central-South, at Shopkick. As the holidays get closer, many retailers boast sales of up to 70 percent off, but that’s often because the original price has been marked up so high that 70 percent off is not nearly the bargain that it appears to be. These kinds of fat markups are particularly common at some department store chains. “Don’t be fooled by 70 percent off sales,” he says. Instead, investigate how the 70 percent off pricing compares with other retailers.


6. Make a family decision on gift wrapping

Gift wrapping can be very expensive, particularly if you pay someone to do it for you. Limiting the amount of gift wrapping you do is an easy way to help stay within your holiday budget, Gall says. For example, she never has gifts wrapped that are shipped to friends or family members who live out of town. But her family agrees that gifts they open together over the holidays will be wrapped. (The wrapping should not be done by professional gift wrappers or by retailers who charge for wrapped gifts, but by the family members themselves.) Also, she suggests decorative holiday gift bags as an option for gift wrap, because they can be reused.

7. Check the memberships you have

Don’t rush out to join a new membership club for the holidays, but instead reevaluate the memberships you already have and double-check how you might best use them to save on holiday purchases, Godwin says. For example, all Amazon Prime members might not realize the early access they get to Prime deals that general shoppers don’t get, Godwin says. And some “membership” clubs have no fees at all, but can still offer shoppers some holiday budget relief. For example, he says, the CVS loyalty card that he regularly uses at the drugstore features ExtraBucks rewards for many of the things he purchases. Just the other day, a cashier informed Godwin that he had $48 in ExtraBucks sitting on his card. Godwin suggests that holiday shoppers first look for easy money or discounts like this that they might not be aware are sitting on a rewards card.

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8. Shop with cash only

Shopping with cash for the holidays might sound unfriendly in a highly digital, pandemic-concerned world. But think of it this way: If your holiday budget is $100 and you put $100 in your wallet to spend for all your holiday shopping, you will absolutely know when you’ve reached your maximum, Gall says. Some also recommend keeping your cash in larger bills because most shoppers are more reluctant to frivolously spend them.

9. Verify online that every deal is the best

The very smartest holiday shoppers always verify that they are getting the absolute best deal before buying, Gall says. This is particularly true for folks who like to shop in person. Once you’ve seen the best prices in the store, compare them to the best prices the store has online — and the best prices competitors offer. If you don’t verify pricing online, you’re almost certain to be paying more than you need to.

10. Don’t buy everything at once

Many older consumers — eager to get their holiday shopping done — often prefer to do all of their holiday shopping at once. But that’s rarely a smart strategy if staying within your holiday budget is a primary concern, Godwin says. That’s because the various retailer holiday specials and deals come at scattered times. It’s smart to keep track of the coming “deal” days for your favorite retailers (often advertised on their websites), and those might be the best times to shop online or in person at each of them.

Bruce Horovitz is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and caregiving. He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY. Horovitz regularly writes for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, AARP Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Kaiser Health News, and PBS Next Avenue.

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