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50 Ways to Make Most of Holiday Shopping

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SHOP AND SAVE

Holiday shopping isn't just the usual mall scene decked with boughs of holly; it's a whole lot crazier. With many so things to buy and so many people crowding the aisles, skill and patience are mandatory. The following 50 tips for savvy shopping should help consumers save money, time, and sanity this holiday season.

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USE AN APP OR LOOK ONLINE TO COMPARE PRICES

Don't buy a gift from the first place you find it. Do your homework before checking out.

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GO IN WITH A PLAN

Make a list for each store, complete with a budget for each gift, for efficient holiday shopping.

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USE COUPONS

But only for items you need. Don't get lulled into buying things that aren't on your list just because you found a good coupon.

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SHOP YARD SALES (ONLINE AND OFF)

This doesn't always mean buying used goods. Brand-new items in original packaging sometimes show up at these events.

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START NOW

Waiting until the last minute to purchase holiday gifts can back you into a corner, forcing you to pay the going rate. Catch the sales as they crop up.

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BUY OUT OF SEASON

Instead of going for all the winter wear on offer, search the clearance racks for end-of-season clothing and shoes, and stock up on the next size for the kids.

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WHEN IN DOUBT, SKIP IT

Unless you're 100 percent sure the recipient will absolutely love the gift, wait until you find something better.

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SHOP WITH LIKE-MINDED BUDDIES

Pick a shopping partner who has the same goals and focus rather than someone who is likely to veer off plan.

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ASK ABOUT PRICE MATCHING

Many stores match advertised prices from competitors (although Thanksgiving weekend is often excluded from price matching). Armed with other stores' ads and knowledge of price-matching policies, shoppers can save more than a few pennies.

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KNOW WHEN YOU'RE ELIGIBLE FOR DISCOUNTS

Some retailers offer discounts for seniors, students, and members of organizations such as AAA. Be sure to ask and have the appropriate identification to cash in.

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SAVE RECEIPTS

Leaving the store with an item doesn't mean you're stuck with it. Be sure you know the store's return policy.

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BE WARY OF NEW PRODUCTS WITH NO TRUSTED REVIEWS

Wait until the all the kinks are worked out before shelling out for the latest and greatest model of anything.

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LOOK FOR HIDDEN COSTS

If you need to pay for software or hardware just to make a product work, or if a purchase locks you into a subscription or a contract, the deal might not be so hot.

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BRING SNACKS

Smart shoppers know there is no time to be hungry or thirsty, and you're unlikely to find good value at the food court, so come prepared.

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PAY OFF YOUR CREDIT CARD RIGHT AWAY

Don't even wait until the end of the month. Make a payment while a big purchase is fresh in your mind so there's no risk of late fees or added interest.

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NEVER PAY FULL PRICE

Nearly everything is discounted this time of year, so if an item isn't on sale and you don't have a coupon, forget about it. Have a backup plan or keep watch for the price to fall.

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SIGN UP FOR PRICE ALERTS

Save time and let a price-tracking tool such as PriceZombie, TrackIf, and CamelCamelCamel do all the price watching. Sit back and receive notifications when a price drops.

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SIGN UP FOR LOYALTY CARDS

Sign up for any merchant offering that promises exclusive coupons or discounts but doesn't require opening a credit card account.

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SHOP ONLINE

Avoid the crowds and quickly search for the best prices from the comfort of home.

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LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME

Of course you want to spend time with them, but shopping will go a lot more quickly if you keep your eyes on the in-store prizes.

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BEWARE OF GIMMICKS

If you have to buy this to get that -- say, a gift card good for only a week after the first of the year -- it's a lure to get you to buy something you may not need.

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USE MOBILE APPS TO KEEP TRACK OF PURCHASES

Money management apps such as Mint and BillGuard keep track of your spending and your budget in one convenient digital space.

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WAIT FOR FREE SHIPPING DAY

Many online retailers offer free shipping during the holiday season. Hundreds will do so on Free Shipping Day, Dec. 18.

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DO IT YOURSELF

If you can make it, don't buy it. DIY projects truly come from the heart and generally cost less.

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TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE GIFT WRAPPING

Wrapping gifts takes time and money that can be saved for other items. Seek out retailers and malls that offer this service.

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OPT OUT OF THE GIFT RECEIPT

The recipient may get credit for the price of the item the day it's returned, which may not be what you paid for it. Take the regular receipt instead.

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CREATE A 'GIFT ONLY' EMAIL ADDRESS

Rather than wading through store newsletters and coupons that show up in your regular email, create an address dedicated to these missives.

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MAP YOUR ROUTE

Time is money, and so is gasoline. Plan shopping trips around clusters of stores.

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PRE-SHOP THE POST-THANKSGIVING DEALS

Know exactly what you are going to purchase on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and stick to the plan.

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BE AN EARLY BIRD

It's worth an hour or two less sleep to arrive when stores open in the early morning hours to score a top gift item at a fraction of the price.

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SHARE YOUR TOP GIFT NEEDS WITH FRIENDS

If they spot an item on your list at a good price while shopping, they can buy it and save you the trip.

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USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO FIND THE BEST DEALS

Follow the Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of Black Friday sites and retailers that advertise last-minute or unpublished deals.

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BUY GIFT CARDS TO REDEEM FOR FUEL POINTS

Many grocery chains operate gas stations that award fuel points for in-store purchases. Present a gift card to someone else or use one yourself and rake in the fuel discounts.

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STOCK UP AT THE DOLLAR STORE

Many holiday items, such as wrapping paper, gift bags, ornaments, and bows, are much cheaper at the dollar store and just as functional.

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CREATE A HOLIDAY BANK ACCOUNT

Put the money you've been saving for the holiday season in a dedicated account, so you know exactly how much you have to spend and don't go over budget.

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KEEP SHOPPING AFTER THE HOLIDAY

Plan ahead for next year by shopping the holiday clearance racks. Just don't forget what you have.

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GIVE THE GIFT OF SERVICE

Create a gift certificate for a service you can provide to a loved one who would benefit more from an intangible than a material gift.

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DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Organize a team of shoppers, share your lists, and spread out to complete everyone's shopping in an efficient and timely manner.

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SHOP YOUR BASEMENT

The ceiling for a "white elephant" or other gift exchange often is $10 or $15. Raid your stash for unopened candles, mugs, and holiday décor.

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WATCH OUT FOR MAIL-IN REBATES

Some of the biggest discounts advertised this season depend on mail-in rebates. If you go for one of these deals, be sure to follow through, and bear in mind that you may have to cut a barcode off a product given as a gift.

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BUY IN BULK

Save time and money by buying multiples of the same gift -- a case of wine to be divided, for example, or a package of Costco gift cards.

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BUY OLDER ELECTRONICS

Save a little by opting for last year's model, which probably doesn't differ much from the newest one.

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BAKE GIFTS INSTEAD OF BUYING

Nothing says the holidays like a plate of freshly baked cookies. Head to the grocery store instead of the mall to put together a sweet gift.

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SHOP DISCOUNT WEBSITES

Sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial, and Zulily offer goods and services at deeply discounted rates. The offers are live for short periods and change frequently.

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SIMPLIFY YOUR LIST

Consider buying one big gift for a family, such as a zoo membership, rather than several individual gifts.

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REWARD YOURSELF

Don't hesitate to accept a free gift with purchase or to spend extra store dollars on something special for all your hard work.

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SHOP AT OFF-PEAK TIMES

You'll get more attention from salespeople and can take the time to make wise buying decisions.

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DRIVE FOR A GOOD DEAL

Although the selection may be better, prices are likely to be higher in big cities. Drive an hour or so away and you'll likely score a cheaper deal, even factoring in the price of gasoline.

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ENJOY YOURSELF

Step outside the stress box, and focus on the season's joy and the special time with family and friends.