Contrary to popular opinion, the day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday,” is not the busiest shopping day of the year, but it is the day when many retailers’ balance sheets dip into the black and out of the red. It’s also a good time for consumers to adjust their shopping lists to match what’s in their wallets.
The key to staying sane, in the spirit and out of debt during the holiday season is to make a plan and stick to it. Simple enough, right? Then why do we need to be reminded every year?
1. OK, it has been said a thousand times before but it has to be said again here: Make a list and check it twice. Decide who has been naughty and who has been nice, and who you have to get gifts for anyway. Family — yes. Some friends — not all. Colleagues — maybe. Landlord — not necessary. Boss is debatable. I’d vote, “No.” This is the one time of year they should thank you. Don’t be swayed by feelings of guilt. If your neighbors stop by with a fruitcake — that’s probably been around the globe twice — don’t feel obligated to add them to the list.
2. Establish gift categories and a price range for each person on your list. An itemized list will help a lot later when you are actually in the store or sit down at your computer to do some serious shopping. Mom gets the best you can afford. Dad pulls a close second. The kids and spouse can live with a little less. All others — friends, extended family, and the UPS guy — fall in line after that. Well, the UPS guy may rank above some friends. Remember it’s not necessary to buy the new boyfriend a Harley. A book about motorcycles will do just fine.
3. Set a budget. You know how much you have to spend or want to spend on holiday gifts. The number is irrelevant. Sticking to the number is important and feeling that it’s OK if you spend less than friends, family or neighbors is equally important. Even if the economy is turning around, you don’t have to spend the anticipated windfall now.
4. To make the most of your dollar, do your homework. Take the time to know prices. For frequent shoppers, that’s easy. Shopping all year gives them an advantage. Seasonal shoppers should flip through catalogs or surf the Web before even entering into a brick-and-mortar store.
5. Look for sales on items on your list but don’t be swayed by sales signs. No one wants that perfume — that’s why it is on sale. And unlike a rose, a sale isn’t always a sale or the best price in town. It’s just less than what the suggested retail price is or what the retailer sells it for on non-sale days. This is where the Internet comes in. Check prices online before you shop.
6. Similarly be weary of promotions, such as “buy this, get that” or special weekends that offer discounts for friends and family. Most of these promotions are designed to lure you into the store to buy items not on your list.
Specially look out for the ads that offer rock-bottom prices on big-ticket items or electronics. Check model numbers carefully.
Reading the fine print can be tedious. So don’t be shy: Ask as many questions as you can think of — in person, by email or on the telephone. Does the regular return policy apply for sale items? What is that policy? Is there’s a time limit on the FREE gift certificate or coupon I receive with a purchase of this item? Can you give a name and number of a person I can follow-up with if there is a problem? How can I reach you again if there is a problem? Is that your home or cell phone number?
7. Shop online or off. But if you do shop online, know the rules. Read “Top 10 rules for online shopping” and learn what you need to know about returns, privacy and credit security. Then test your knowledge with this online shopping holiday puzzle published by the Federal Trade Commission.
8. Keep records. Save receipts in case there is a problem, such as the blender doesn’t match the kitchen or for some unknown technical reason, Elmo won’t do the “Hokey Pokey.” (Check the batteries first before you wait on a long line to exchange or return something.)
9. Shopping right before the holiday is deadly. In other words, don’t wait to the last minute. Everything starts to look like a great deal the week before Dec. 25. You’re in the spirit, you see something you want. It’s on SALE. You think, “Oh, I spent $300, what’s another $20.” Wrong. You don’t need that Lamp Chop puppet, which always goes on sale right before the stores close up for the holidays.
10. Have fun. Shopping during the holidays is one of the reasons you worked so hard this year. Enjoy it. Shop around. Shop with friends. Shop with family members. Have some festive foods not on your diet.
Teri Goldberg lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.