SAVE, THEN SHOP
It's not even Halloween, but many consumers are already prepping for the annual holiday spending extravaganza—and they may be on to something. Retailers are readying for Black Friday, traditionally the single biggest shopping day of the year. Soon, Christmas decor will be hanging from store rafters and weekly circulars will be advertising deals on coveted items. These tips can help consumers set a budget, save up money, and plan for a smooth and financially sound holiday shopping season.
MAKE A BUDGET
Hold a "state of the union" about holiday expenses with your spouse, significant other, or anyone with whom you expect to buy gifts this year. It may not be fun, but knowing in advance how much you can spend will alleviate a lot of stress. Make your holiday budget all-inclusive: gifts and holiday cards for everyone on your list, wrapping paper and stamps, decorations, food and drinks for parties and during shopping excursions, and whatever else requires a cash outlay during the holiday season. Don't budget for more money than you have or know you can save by the deadline.
Like, immediately. Christmas is still a few months away, and anyone paid weekly will get nine more paychecks before Black Friday. Fix a budget now and stash some cash for the big day. Given the magnitude of many holiday discounts, $30 out of each paycheck stretches pretty far.
HAVE A DESIGNATED HOLIDAY ACCOUNT
To ensure the savings intended for the holidays are actually used for that purpose, consider setting up a targeted bank account. Many employers let employees divvy up their take-home pay into multiple accounts.
HAVE A 'NO SPEND' MONTH
There's still time to do this: Make October a no-spend month, and don't spend a dime on anything above and beyond basic needs: food, gas, and bills that must be paid. What's left at the end of the month should all go toward the holiday fund.
SAVE UP GIFT CARDS
Any cash-like asset can be put toward a holiday shopping budget, so get in the habit of saving up gift cards. Dig out old ones that may still hold a few dollars and take them along when you shop; every little bit helps.
BUY CHEAP GIFT CARDS
Alternatively, search a site such as Gift Card Granny for the stores where you plan to shop and buy a few unwanted gift cards at a discount off their underlying value.
PAY WITH CASH
Once you've decided on a holiday budget, stick to it. Credit cards are the enemy here—they tempt you to spend now and worry later. Be firm and reject the siren call of credit when hitting the holiday sales. Pay for this year's goodies with cash, check, or debit card so you don't spend more than you have. Steel yourself to walk away from holiday sales once you've hit your limit.
PURGE TO MAKE ROOM FOR NEW
Everyone has something to get rid of, and there's still time to try selling it, especially while it's still warm enough to host a garage sale. You can also post sale items to Craigslist or with a local buy/sell/trade group on social media. You'll make room for the flood of new gifts while padding the holiday budget with a spot of extra cash.
CREATE A GIFT CLOSET
As you purge, set aside gift-worthy things. Perhaps you have duplicates of a few children's books. Keep one for the gift closet. Hats and gloves tend to pile up and not be worn—keep the tags on and stash them away. Any gifts you get throughout the year that you can't use, put in the gift closet for the holidays (with notes reminding you who they were from). The next time you need a hostess gift or a last-minute present, shop the gift closet before spending money.
MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT TWICE
Holiday spending, especially on Black Friday, can easily turn into a cash-flow catastrophe. Seemingly everything is on sale everywhere, luring too many consumers to spend, spend, spend. To help stanch the outflow, make a list of recipients and the amount you're planning to shell out for each—and then stick to it. Have a plan of action ready even before the Black Friday ads start rolling out.
CLIP AND SAVE
No need to go coupon crazy, but if you spot a coupon for something on your list, use it now. The same goes for store cash: Research merchants' deals. Kohl's, for example, is running a promotion that awards customers Kohl's Cash to spend during an upcoming redemption period (Sept. 26 to Oct. 2). If you have a similar coupon handy, spend it on something for the holidays.
SHOP DEAL SITES NOW
It's always worthwhile to check some of the best coupon and deal sites—you never know when a deal will pop up that can help you check someone off your list for less.
Once confined to the Friday after Thanksgiving, big discounts are increasingly leaking into the rest of November. Some retailers now offer a few "Black Friday" deals in advance. In past years, Amazon has released deals all week leading up to Black Friday, and Walmart has hosted a "Super Saturday" sale in early November featuring Black Friday-like deals. Similar promotions from these and other retailers are likely this year. If an item on your list is advertised for less than your budget allotted, grab it. You'll get a running start on your shopping and save along the way.
USE SOCIAL MEDIA
Want to be among the first to glimpse those coveted Black Friday ads? There's little time for browsing once the crowds descend, so look to online resources, sign up for email lists, "like" retailers on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter for an early peek.
SIGN UP FOR ALERTS
Signing up for a Google Alert with the search query "Black Friday" will fill up your inbox with Black Friday ads and related coverage. With all that information at your fingertips, you'll know which items to target long before Black Friday arrives.
TRACK YOUR BUDGET
Even if you shop early, be sure to keep your budget up to date. Print out a copy or store it on your smartphone and always carry it with you. Mark down how much you're spending and where, and regularly check your progress against the plan. Accountability goes a long way toward keeping your finances straight during the holiday shopping season.