Debt-Free Holidays: 10 Ways to Shop Better on Black Friday and Beyond

a lady in a santa hat smiles while holding big presentsIt can be enormously gratifying to watch our loved ones' faces light up when they open a holiday gift we've carefully purchased with them in mind. But it can be equally stressful trying to buy something they'll love and still keep the gift-buying budget under control. Not surprisingly, WalletPop's staff turned out to be experts in the art of buying gifts for less, and they were all too happy to share their secrets for debt-free Black Friday shopping and beyond.

Many on our staff recommend that families cut down on the gift expenses by holding a "Secret Santa" or "Kris Kringle" exchange in which people draw names out of a hat and only buy a gift for that person. Others say their families have negotiated agreements in which only the kids get gifts, or only nominal gifts (say, less than $25) are exchanged. "Many times both parties spend more than they want to simply because they both are afraid of offending the other," points out WalletPop's Tom Barlow.Check out dollar stores, suggests WalletPop's Marlene Alexander. "They have many of the same kinds of items you see in gift baskets at department stores, so make up your own gift baskets [from dollar store merchandise] and save at least half of what you'd ordinarily spend. Dollar stores are also great for stocking stuffers."

"Dollar stores are great for hostess gifts, too," says WalletPop's Teresa Ciulla. "If you're going to a lot of parties during the holiday season and want to bring a little something, there are quite a few things you can find at the dollar stores. It's also nice to shop there for a few generic gifts to have on hand for last-minute or 'Oops, I forgot about that person' gifts."

"I also find really cool and inexpensive gifts in Chinatown and other ethnic neighborhoods of the city," says WalletPop's Ann Brenoff. "My kids are from China, so they give Chinese tea to their teachers; it takes on a special meaning for them."

"Handmade gifts are an option," WalletPop's Christina Marie Fierro suggests. "Some require a lot of time and skill, but there are a lot of really simple DIY projects that make great gifts." Stumped about what to do or worried you're not crafty enough? Go online and search for "homemade gifts" to yield plenty of pages like this.

Don't forget that your time can be a gift, too. "Show your non-tech-savvy relatives how to do things like use their phones or bookmark Pandora on their PC," says WalletPop's Josh Smith. If you're not a techie, make coupons for babysitting, a home-cooked dinner (delivered), yardwork or other chores instead.

"Sometimes my friends and I will meet for dinner at a place we all enjoy instead of buying each other gifts," offers WalletPop's Bonnie McCarthy. If even this will strain your pocketbook, see if your pals want to get together for a potluck dinner at someone's home instead.

Getting the best deal
If you don't mind an element of risk (or if your recipients aren't the picky type), hold out until closer to Christmas, says John Ulzheimer, founder of Step2Credit.com. After Black Friday, he predicts, "The deals are going to get better. Of course, the downside to that is you may be picking over what's left."

"Don't be afraid to haggle -- even in the big box stores," advises WalletPop's Dawn Fallik. "If you're buying a big item, whether it's furniture or a TV, go at a time when it's not crazy, like first thing in the morning, and see if you can find a manager. Ask if they can do any better on the price or if they can throw in a free warranty or shipping."

"The first, most important thing is to do price comparisons. If you do see what you think is a great deal, don't think it's great because it's a drastic percentage off the regular price," warns Albert Ko, owner and CEO of cheapcheapcheap.com. Since one store's "regular" price can be very different from another's, check around online to verify how good the deal is. Focus on the dollar amount instead of the percentage off. In addition, if you're buying online, Ko suggests searching for coupon codes before you pay. Just type the phrase "coupon code" (in quotes) along with the name of the retailer into a search box.

Shopping for the right gift doesn't have to be stressful or a budget buster. And neither do your other holiday tasks. If you want to learn more about how to keep your holidays debt-free, check out our other articles in this series on food, entertaining and decorating.

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