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Don't be a frustrated shopper this holiday season. Follow these tips and you will save money — and quite possibly your sanity.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/2/2010 11:22:29 AM ET 2010-12-02T16:22:29

For most of us, there’s still a lot of holiday gift buying left to do in the next three weeks. With all the rushing around at this time of year, it takes a little extra effort to be a smart shopper. Here are 10 tips designed to help you find the good deals and stretch your holiday dollars.

1. Do your homework
A cheap price on lousy merchandise is no deal. You can find product evaluations at a number of sites, including Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping and CNET (for electronics). You should also check customer reviews on Amazon.com and other shopping sites.

On the Web

Then find out what’s a good price. Sites such as pricegrabber.com, pricespider.com, bing.com  and nextag.com make this easy to do. Look for coupons that can bring down the price even more at sites such as couponcabin.com, couponmountain.com and retailmenot.com.

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2. Keep looking because prices change
“We’re seeing a lot of fast price-cutting online by both big retailers and small,” says Daniel de Grandpre, Editor-in-Chief at dealnews.com. “It’s a lot of fun to watch and it’s certainly something you should take advantage of.”

If you’re looking for super deals on toys, de Grandpre suggests you wait a bit longer. He says Wal-Mart, Amazon, ToysRUs and Target “kind of go to war on prices” between December 7th to 20th. That’s when discounts can reach 60 to 70 percent.

There are a number of ways to keep up with these ever-changing prices. Sign up for deal alerts at dealnews.com, dealalerter.com and pricegrabber.com. You can also “friend” your favorite stores on Facebook and monitor their Twitter feeds for special deals. Some retail sites now offer their own price alerts, so be sure to check for that.

3. Haggle for a better deal
Most people won’t do it. But if you have the nerve, give it a try. Surveys by Consumer Reports show that about half the people who haggle are successful. Those who negotiated the price of a TV saved an average of $165. Haggling over the price of a computer saved about $105.

Even if you don’t get a better price, you may get something extra. The store may give you free delivery, free installation or bonus software. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking. (Consumer Reports: Tips of How to Haggle)

4. Look for free shipping
You can’t beat free shipping. But “free” doesn't mean the same thing at every site. You need to check the rules. Is it limited to certain items? Are you required to make a minimum purchase? Are there any other strings attached?

Also, watch out for sites that lure you in with low prices on the merchandise and then clobber you with a huge shipping fee. The editors at Shop Smart magazine discovered that when one of their secret shoppers went looking for a garden tool. It was advertised for $19.99, a great price. But not after the shipping charges were added on at checkout. The final price came to $56.80, no deal at all.

5. Get a price guarantee
Let’s face it, we all wonder if we really got the lowest price when we go shopping the sales. See if the store has a low-price guarantee that entitles you to a refund if the item goes on sale after you buy it or if you find it somewhere else for less.

“Many chains will offer you a 30 day price match,” says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. “But I think more realistically you’ll need to get that price match within 7 to 15 days, which seems to be the new norm for price adjustments.”

Keep in mind: most price-matching policies do not apply to online offers or warehouse clubs.

6. Skip the extended warranty
Don’t expect to buy any appliance or electronic product without getting the pitch for an extended warranty. The salesperson may try to convince you this extra coverage is a cheap way to protect yourself against costly repairs.

Consumer experts disagree. They say these service contracts are generally a bad deal for the customer.

Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports, calls it “a sucker’s bet” because the odds are slim you will ever need that extra coverage. Marks says products rarely break within the extended-warranty window. And if they do, the repairs tend to cost about the same as the price paid for the extended warranty.

Consumer Reports says there are two cases where an extra warranty may be worth considering: if it extends tech support and repair coverage for a computer beyond the factory warranty, or it provides accidental damage coverage for a laptop, netbook or tablet that will be used on the go.

7. Usethe right card
You may not have to consider an extended warranty if you use the right credit card to pay for that purchase. Most platinum and gold credit cards double the manufacturer’s warranty for up to an extra year. Check with your credit card companies to see if any of your cards provide an extended warranty benefit.

8. Be wary of instant store credit cards
You're at the register and the salesperson offers you a great deal – you can save 10 to 20 percent on that purchase by opening a store charge card on the spot. If you’re about to make a sizeable purchase, the instant savings can be mighty tempting. But consider this: most retail cards have an interest rate of 20 percent or more; some are as high as 28.99 percent.

“So if you end up carrying a balance, even for one month, you may easily wipe out that instant savings,” warns Gerri Detweiler, personal finance advisor with Credit.com.

Agree to apply for the card and the store is going to check your credit report. That inquiry can affect your credit score. If you are approved and put a balance on that card, this will also affect your credit score.

“The stronger your credit, the less the affect will be,” Detweiler notes. “So I'd say if you really want that discount, maybe it's worth it, but don't open more than one of these store cards this holiday shopping season.”

9. Know return policies 
You need to think about this as you make your buying decisions. Many chain stores give you 90 days to take back holiday purchases. But that return period can be much shorter. That’s especially true when you buy electronics. In some cases, you only have 14 days. So you’ve got to be careful.

Also, once you open the box, you might have to pay a restocking fee of 15 percent or more to take it back. So the rule is simple: if you don’t want it, don’t open it.

10. Get a gift receipt
You can make those returns easier by giving a gift receipt with your present. A gift receipt doesn’t have the price on it, but the store will know exactly how much you paid for that item. Without a receipt, some stores will not allow a return. Others will only give a refund for the lowest price that item sold for during the holiday shopping season. You may have paid a lot more than that. A gift receipt removes those hassles.

More information

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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