How to Shop for the Holidays Without Sacrificing Your Budget and Sanity
Confession time: I’m a chronic last-minute shopper. While this is true throughout the year, my habit is particularly notable during the holiday season.
At least I’m not alone. A recent study by the National Retail Federation found that about 90 percent of shoppers wait until December 23 to finish their holiday shopping. Talk about pushing things down to the wire.
About 45 percent of respondents said they delay shopping because they like to weigh their options, but 22 percent of last-minute shoppers said they like to wait for the best deals on merchandise. Another large contingent — about 21 percent of 11th-hour buyers — admitted they're simply procrastinators. I’d fall into that last category.
Whether you’re the sort of person who wraps up your holiday shopping by mid-July or one of the brave souls who navigates the chaos of Black Friday, it’s never too early to get a jump on things. Your tactics will undoubtedly vary, but one constant remains: Consumers run the risk of overspending in the absence of a holiday shopping strategy.
A Cautionary Tale of Chasing Sales
I tend to do most of my holiday shopping online because it’s more convenient. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted by in-store deals. Unfortunately, the payoff of those deals isn’t always worth the time and effort involved.
A few years back, I was in the market for a flat-screen TV. With Black Friday on the horizon, I saw plenty of advertisements promoting amazing deals on TVs. Given the hype, I assumed it didn’t matter which store I went to or how early I got there.
I was wrong.
On that fateful Black Friday, I thought I’d avoid the crowds and go shopping in the late morning. Traffic was still crazy when I set out, and my trip to the local Best Buy took much longer than usual. The store was just as packed as the roads, and the shelves were empty when I got to the area with the TV that I wanted. There were other TVs available, but they were not what I wanted.
I came up empty-handed at the nearby Costco, so I finally grabbed my smartphone and checked Amazon for a similar deal — as 84 percent of shoppers do during holiday shopping. As it happens, Amazon had available stock of the exact TV I wanted at the price I was seeking. As I used my phone to order the TV from the crowded aisles of the store, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted in my quest for this “deal.”
Instead of chasing the promise of special sales and coming up empty-handed, savvy spenders should do their homework and execute a calculated shopping strategy.
5 Ways to Survive Holiday Shopping
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to holiday shopping — you have to embrace whichever methods mesh with your personality — but there are plenty of ways to eliminate unnecessary stress from the equation. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Set a spending limit.
Creating a budget can help you avoid overspending, but you have to stick to that framework. If you have more than one person on your shopping list, you’ll want to set a spending limit for each recipient as part of your overall budget. To make the process easier, talk through these limits with your friends and family members to find a price point that works for everyone. This also helps you avoid the awkward situation of giving your significant other a pack of socks in exchange for an iPad.
2. Set aside plenty of time for shopping.
Shopping might not top your list of favorite activities, but you need to designate plenty of time for holiday shopping excursions if you want to do it right. From navigating traffic to maneuvering through lines, holiday retail treks will undoubtedly take significantly longer than a normal trip to the store. Block out twice as much time as you might normally need for this shopping, and you’ll be far less stressed when things take longer than you expect.
3. Make a list.
Take a lesson from jolly old St. Nicholas and make your own holiday list. Instead of focusing on who might have been naughty or nice, your list should strategically break down your shopping items. After you jot down the items you want to purchase, divide them into categories based on the stores that typically carry those items (preferably at the best price). By organizing your shopping list based on retailers, you can avoid repeat trips to the same store.
4. Partner up for big purchases.
Want to get someone on your shopping list a big-ticket item — think a laptop, a mountain bike, or a gaming console — without breaking the bank? Consider getting a group to go in on the purchase. By joining forces with friends or family members, you can get the recipient a stellar gift without burying yourself in debt.
5. Be strategic about bargain shopping.
If you really want to score a huge bargain, planning is crucial. If you’ve determined that the best price can only be found in a store, figure out how many retailers are carrying the item you want. If there are multiple stores that have the item — or even multiple locations of the same store in your area — recruit a shopping partner who can go to one place while you visit another. Divide and conquer.
Planning isn’t necessarily fun, but the payoff is worth it. That’s especially true when it comes to holiday shopping. From chronic procrastinators to the most organized of holiday shoppers, people are less stressed when they create budgets, block out ample time for shopping, and partner with others to ease the burden. The holidays might seem impossibly chaotic, but any proactive work to lessen that stress is a smart investment.