According to the media, the economy is in the toilet. Christmas lists have been slashed to the bone, and shoppers aren't as free with their money as they were last year. Although judging from the lack of parking places at WalMart, Target or the mall, not everyone got the memo.
Yes, times are tough and money is tight. At my last St. Louis Blogger's Guild meeting, we talked about composing blog posts for the Guild site about our favorite "off the radar" places to shop, best homemade gifts, and how to save money on your shopping.
Here are some of my best Christmas money-saving, time-saving and sanity-saving shopping tips. Hopefully they can put some jingle in your pocket this holiday season.
1. Online Shopping. I hear you - "What about the shipping charges when you shop online?" That's true but in my opinion, being able to browse from the comfort of my couch without having to brave the weather, waste gas driving all over, fight for parking, stand in long checkout lines, or deal with rude people, is totally worth the $10 or $15 I might pay in shipping.
You can probably score free shipping by going to a store's website and signing up for their email mailing list and rewards programs. You may wind up with a lot of spam, so set up a Gmail or Yahoo account dedicated just for this purpose. Check the coupons and watch for free shipping offers. Sometimes free shipping alone can save you $10 to $15 dollars.
I get, on average, about 15 emails a day from various retailers. As the holidays approach, discounts will be deeper and free shipping offers will be more prevalent. It's a little time-consuming to read through them, and sometimes the deals have short time periods in which to act, but you can run across some great savings if you're diligent.
Remember, free shipping is usually only ground shipping, so if you're waiting until the last-minute, you will have to pay for expedited shipping. Some retailers may offer upgraded shipping options as we get closer to the 25th, so keep an eye open for those deals.
Finally, if you're shopping online at store like Kohl's, JCPenney, Macy's, etc., you can return items purchased online to the store. Carefully read the return policy as you might only have 15-30 days in which to do so. That can save you some money instead of paying for return shipping.
2. Online Coupon Codes. There are several good sites to check for secret or insider coupon codes. Retailmenot.com and Ebates.com are my favorites. Simply enter the store's website and it will list the coupon codes. There are also comments from other users about the effectiveness or the restrictions on the coupons.
Be warned, not all online stores list their codes, sometimes expired codes are posted, or you need to meet certain requirements, such as a minimum order amount or you have to use a store's credit card. At the very least, you will probably find a code that offers free shipping or 10% off. It's better than nothing.
3. Store Credit Cards. This is a tricky one, and you have to be disciplined with them. However, if you can save 15% to 20% by opening a card, and you pay it off before the statement comes in, then the discount is probably worth it. However, most store cards have interest rates of around 21%, so if you carry a balance, you're probably wiping out your savings by paying interest.
Once you open a card, you will be listed on the store's mailing list. Read these for coupons, one-day only sales, and other promotions. And when you're done, throw it in your recycling bin. Or sign up for e-alerts and e-statements. Save money and save the planet.
Another benefit to using store credit cards is certain stores (Kohl's and Macy's, for example), offer discounts of up to 30% off if you use your store card. Again, make sure you're not saving 30% today and paying it back in interest over time.
Finally, read the coupon's fine print so you're not surprised at the checkout. Sometimes certain brands are excluded, or the discount is reduced in certain departments.
4. Ebay, Etsy, Etc. The world's biggest online garage sale, Ebay, can turn up some real bargains, and help you find that hard-to-locate item. Just watch the shipping and handling charges. Use the proxy bid feature, set a maximum bid (remember to factor in shipping), and then leave it alone. Believe me, you can get caught up in the online bidding war and wind up paying more than you budgeted.
Etsy and Strictlyhandmade.com are great sites for something a little less commercial. The craftsmanship and talent of these artists is amazing. Again, watch your shipping charges, as they will vary by seller.
Finally, some of your blogger friends may have Etsy shops as well. Why not patronize someone you already know (in a virtual sense.)
5. Restaurant Gift Cards. These are good gifts for that hard-to-buy for person, because everybody eats. Most chain restaurants offer deals on gift cards during the holidays. For example, when you buy a $50 Friday's gift card, you will also get a $10 one. If you need to buy a significant number, this could add up to a nice dinner for you. Also, according to Friday's website, there are no dormancy fees or an expiration date on their cards.
Check with each restaurant as to their terms and conditions for expiration and fees.
6. Store Gift Cards. Again, these can be handy for the hard-to-buy for person. Sometimes the stores also offer the buy one get one deal like restaurants. For example, you can get a $10 bonus card with the purchase of a $50 card at L.L. Bean. DSW Shoes offers a $10 card with the purchase of a $50 card.
JCPenney even delivers gift cards by email. Purchase it online and within 12 hours it arrives in your email inbox. Talk about last minute shopping!
Here is a link showing lots of different retailers and their gift card bonus programs.
With the downturn in the economy, however, keep in mind that a store in business today could be closed next month. Also read the terms and conditions for expiration dates and dormancy fees.
7. Google. If you find a deal, and you think you can find a better price, use Google. For example, a certain little red-headed girl I know wants Rock Band. Searching Google, the first hit was $99.99 at Amazon.com, with free shipping. Wal-Mart was $99.92, but no free shipping. Considering I need to buy laundry soap, I'll probably pick it up while I'm there this weekend.
However, Google can come in handy for large-ticket items. Just search the model number. You will also find reviews and possibly recalls or product bulletins as well.
This list is by no means the be-all and end-all. If you've got a tip to share, do so in the comments.