The Ultimate Holiday Shopping Survival Guide

How to keep your cool shopping this Winter Holiday Season

Photo of holiday gifts next to a fireplace
Getty Images - Betsie Van der Meer - Stone Collection - 84426466

The Christmas and winter holiday shopping season is the most popular time of year for gift-giving. However, all too often, the stress of shopping for all those gifts can wear you out, leaving less energy to really celebrate the joy of the season.

However, with a little preparation, you can stay ahead of the crowds. Below are several tips to help you prepare for the holiday shopping frenzy.

The Gift List

The first thing you need to do to prepare for gift-giving is put together a list of those you want to give gifts to.

  • Prioritize Your List: You may want to give lots of people gifts, but when you get to the budget phase you'll realize that you might not be able to afford to give gifts to everyone you would like to.
  • Manage Your List: To better manage your list, put a limit of one gift per person. However, keep in mind that with some gifts, such as a TV, home theater system, or electronic gadget, there may one or more accessories needed to make the product work (more on this later).
  • Detective Work: Find out what your recipient might like or need. If you don't know their interests, ask family members or friends. Of course, make sure they don't spoil the surprise!
  • Surprise or Not: Although most of the time the gift is intended to be a surprise, for some products, you may want to include the gift recipient in the gift selection process. In other words, you take the gift recipient with you shopping for their item and let them choose (you might want to define a dollar limit). This may be a desirable option for products such as TVs or gaming systems, headphones, speakers, or smartphones.

    The Budget

    Once you've sorted out your list and tentative product purchases, it is time to fine-tune your budget.

    In addition to the cost of the products, also consider things such as sales tax, shipping/delivery fees if you need those options, and, as mentioned above, any accessories needed to make the gift work.

    A great way to keep your shopping list within budget is with using a smartphone app. Check out our Christmas Shopping List Apps for iPhone & Android for some ideas.

    The Advertisements

    Don't fall for AD hype - but do check for good deals. Here's what to look for.

    • Check for Product Bundles: Product bundles can not only be great values but can help you get a really complete gift. Examples include a game console that comes with games, or a TV that comes with a soundbar.
    • Understand What Those Ads Actually Say: When you pull out newspaper inserts or see banner ads on the internet, those bargain prices are big and bold. However, be sure to note the fine print which may reveal limited time offers or price after mail-in rebate (which means you pay full price, to begin with at checkout, and you get a rebate check or credit later). Also take note as to whether getting the ad price requires membership in a store or website loyalty program (usually a special card), or the ad price is only available on certain days (such as Black Friday) and/or hours.
    • Don't Get Sucked Into The Lowest Price - Be on the lookout for prices that are too good to be true. That doorbuster price may be attractive and may make an OK gift, but keep in mind that it may be for a no-brand name, discontinued, out-of-date, or even a refurbished product.

      The Gift Card Option

      Consider gift certificates or gift cards that can be redeemed online in-store or both. Gift cards can be purchased online, at many grocery stores, and other retailers.

      They serve not only to cut down on shopping time but will you some piece of mind and lessen the possibility of the gift recipient going through the stress of having to return or exchange the gift, thinking that may offend you.

      Shopping Online

      One way to reduce holiday shopping stress is to forgo the hassle of standing in long lines by simply staying home and shopping online.

      Some popular sites include Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and QVC — and most other brick and mortar stores have online sites that not only feature their in-store inventory, but many times have online exclusives. This is really great, but it is not without its pitfalls.

      Here are some things to keep in mind when shopping online:

      • Buy from authorized dealers and familiar sites only.
      • Be aware of shipping costs and/or other handling fees.
      • Before you get to the check out screen, look for the return, exchange, and/or refund policy and whether you will have to pay return shipping costs should you want to take advantage of any of those options.
      • Save, print, and make backup copies of all purchase receipts.

      Although online shopping is very convenient, when purchasing certain products, such as TVs or audio gear, unless you are familiar with the product, you don't get a chance to actually see or hear it before you buy. As a result, your gift recipient may be appreciative, but the product may not fit their needs. This is a good reason why knowing the site's return/exchange/refund policy is important.

      Brick and Mortar Shopping

      In addition to crowds and lines, here are some things to keep in mind when venturing out to a store to purchase gifts.

      • Keep your energy up: Take snacks and bottled water with you. Store snack bars or mall restaurants will also be crowded, which means more line time that takes away from your shopping tasks.
      • Remember to take your list: You can even make a shopping list using a mobile app that will be handy since you already have your smartphone with you.
      • Take your smartphone shopping with you: There are many price comparison and shopping organization apps for iOS and Android smartphones that can streamline the shopping process.
      • Take Copies of Printed Ads: Make sure you pack some newspaper printed store ads. If you don't subscribe to a physical newspaper, go down to your corner 7-11 or gas station and purchase some Sunday editions, or the edition that comes out on Wednesday before Thanksgiving (for all those Black Friday Ads). If you see the same product on two or more ads, and you have physical documentation that another store may the same product for a lower price, you can request a price match. If the store meets that price, it will save you a trip!
      • Ziplock-type plastic bag: A Ziplock, or another type of storage bag, provides a place for all your paper receipts and any other purchase documentation. After your holiday shopping is over, make backup copies of all receipts and documentation for easy future reference for your records, your gift recipient's records, and for any needed return or refund verification.
      • Get Duplicate or Gift Receipts: If not offered outright by the cashier, ask for a duplicate gift receipt that you can give to the gift recipient.
      • Be Aware Store Return/Exchange Policy: While in the store, take note of their return and/or exchange policy. Most stores have this posted near the entrance/exit, as well as near the check out stands. However, there may be some additional return/exchange info that the retailer imposes specifically for the holiday shopping season. Make sure you ask during the check out process and check to see if the return policy is stated on your printed receipt(s).

      The Bottom Line

      Whether you are shopping online or in-store, be sure to pay with a credit card. The main benefit of paying with a credit card is for better purchase documentation. However, many credit cards also offer cash back or discounts, travel miles, warranty extension, and other benefits that can lessen the financial impact of your holiday purchases on the back end. Just make sure you pay enough to your following monthly statements so that any accrued interest doesn't nullify those benefits.

      Holiday shopping can get quite hectic, but it doesn't have to be. If you take a little time to prepare, you'll have an organized shopping experience that will save some money and maybe a lot of time.

      Take a deep breath, get organized, and eat a good meal before starting your online shopping session or heading out the stores!