50 Ways to Make Most of Holiday Shopping

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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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

Many credit cards offer rewards points based on purchases. Redeem the points you accrue for cash or gift cards.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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