Seasonal Shopping Tip Sheet

Bring some cheer and cash back into your holiday

Hate holiday shopping? You’re not alone. For many, the joys of the season are eclipsed by jostling shopping center crowds, jammed parking lots, and long lists of expensive gifts that won’t be paid off until June. Don’t despair-here are a few tips to help you wrap up your holiday shopping in record time without incurring debt. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Before we talk bargains, let’s talk budget. Sit down, pen and paper in hand, and map out how much you plan to spend. An excellent guide is Judy Lawrence’s The Budget Kit (Kaplan Business; $18.95), which includes a Christmas/holiday expense worksheet that helps you budget everything from the cost of family portraits to the office grab bag. Mary Hunt, the author of Debt Proof the Holidays (DPL Press Inc.; $14.95) says creating a spending plan frees you up to enjoy the true meaning of the season. “Take care of the business of Christmas before you become emotionally involved.”

Store-length lines and parking lots filled with circling SUVs are enough to deter the most determined buyer. “Smart shoppers can follow little tricks of the trade to reduce unnecessary frustration,” says Dan Butler, the National Retail Federation’s vice president of retail operations and merchandising. For example, shop after 6:00 p.m. the evening before a sale starts, since retailers often program the registers for sales the previous evening. Or nix the crowds by hitting the mall during your favorite store’s early and extended hours.

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Michael Gikas, associate editor of electronics and technology at Consumer Reports, says the best times to buy are the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate prices. “Electronics stores rarely have a solid sticker price on high-end items,” says Gikas.

He also suggests skipping pricey TV cables. “You shouldn’t pay more than $30 for component cables,” he says.

When it comes to low-interest loans and zero-percent interest cards, just say no. “If you don’t pay off your loan within the specified time frame, the interest you would have paid in the first free months balloons,” says Gikas. That could mean paying double or triple the price of that flat-screen TV. Talk about sticker shock.

Use shopping bots such as BizRate.com, PriceGrabber.com, and PriceSCAN.com. “They’ll come up with different products so you can compare prices,” says Consumer Reports’ Anthony Giorgianni. Before you seal the deal, make sure the sale price takes shipping fees into account.

Don’t forget to look at terms and conditions, such as restocking fees and return policies.

Giorgianni also suggests that online consumers use a balance-free credit card for purchases to avoid interest and finance charges-just be sure you’ve budgeted enough to pay it off.

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