First, there was Thanksgiving. Just Thanksgiving, with some pilgrims, and Native Americans, and a turkey. Then came Black Friday. And then Cyber Monday. And now we seem to have White Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Giving Tuesday, as well.
It's enough to make your head spin, but if you approach this busy week armed with information, resources, and a plan -- which we provide here -- you can end up saving, spending, and giving more effectively than you ever imagined.
Thanksgiving is many people's favorite holiday, requiring no gift-related stress, and offering most a chance to spend the day eating lots of good food, enjoying each others' company, and being thankful for our blessings. There is still some stress to the day, though, especially if you're preparing the turkey.
One resource for turkey cooks is the Butterball hotline, a phone number [(800) BUTTERBALL] you can call to get answers to your questions. (You may remember President Bartlet discovering it in a memorable episode of "The West Wing.") Of course, it's 2012, so there's now an app for that. For $5, you can access recipes, videos, and other handy resources.
Then comes the ubiquitous Macy's Thanksgiving Parade -- this year's will be the 86th. As you watch read up on its history and fun facts, which can be particularly fun to share with kids.
The day after Thanksgiving has become its own kind of retail celebration, and the beginning of the Christmas-shopping season. And in order to maximize their traffic and sales, stores have been opening for it earlier and earlier in recent years. This year some, such as Target (TGT), Walmart (WMT), Kmart, Sears (SHLD) and Toys R Us, will start their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving evening, frustrating many of their employees.
If you plan to join the masses, do some research, and plan your approach:
- At websites such as dealnews.com and BFAds.net, you can access some of the stores' sale circulars without having to wait for them to arrive with your newspaper. (Note that they may not all be 100% correct, though.)
- Get information directly from your favorite retailers by signing up for email updates at their websites and following them on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Many of the great deals you'll see are also available via a store's website, and they may be available well before Friday.
- At sites such as Plastic Jungle, Gift Card Granny, Card Hub, Cardpool, CardCash and GiftCards.com, you can get many items for less by buying a discounted gift card. (Just be careful, as some fraudsters are selling fake ones via Craigslist and elsewhere.)
- Smartphones and tablets are also handy, as various apps will present in-store coupons, and apps that let you "check in" may reward you with instant in-store coupons. Some apps, such as Amazon Price Check, RedLaser, and Google Shopper, will let you scan a product's bar code and then compare prices elsewhere.
Some have suggested that instead of participating in frenzied shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving, we can observe a "White Friday," a day on which we buy nothing. (That sound you just heard was the collective gasp of thousands of retailers.)
Some ideas for how to spend the day instead include: tidying and de-cluttering your home; volunteering; taking the day to organize your finances (and perhaps send off a check to pay down some of your debt), or clearing your schedule in order to spend time with loved ones.
You could also spend the day giving things away (via sites such as FreeCycle.com and Craigslist.com), trading items, or even selling them, in order to make money instead of spending it. (For sites other than eBay where you can declutter your life and get cash in return, check out Tradesy.com and Gumroad.com, among other sites.)
The key idea of White Friday is that instead of spending money, you spend your time -- tending to your home, your loved ones, your community or yourself. Some see White Friday as a day of giving -- while others have suggested a whole other day for that: Giving Tuesday.
Photo: Smacks Well, Flickr.com
Small Business Saturday
While on Black Friday, the media and shoppers tend to focus on major national retailers, on Saturday, we're encouraged to remember all the small, local businesses that surround us. First promoted by American Express (AXP) in 2010, this new commercial occasion has gained traction, with support from the U.S. Small Business Administration and others. It's estimated that while roughly 13% of the money we spend in big-box stores helps our local economy, 45% of money spent at local small businesses does so. So if your hometown and region are hurting right now, doing a chunk of your holiday shopping at locally-owned stores is a good way to help.
Learn more at the Small Business Saturday Facebook page -- it already has more than 3 million fans!
The first thing to know about Cyber Monday -- that day when we're encouraged to shop for the great deals online -- is that by Monday, many of those special deals have already been available for several days. Plenty of retailers are starting their online specials on Thursday or Friday, though some are still saving their best deals for Monday.
You'll find listings of cyber deals (and Black Friday deals) at websites such as SlickDeals.net, Offers.com, and CyberMonday.com.
Be wary, though: Scam artists are out in force on Cyber Monday. Some, for example, create counterfeit websites that look like your intended destination, but aren't. So check web addresses and URLs closely.
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Cyber Monday Tips
Columnist Lauryn Jashinsky has offered lots of tips on staying safe while shopping online:
- Start off by making sure your computer's security software is up to date, and be sure to use strong passwords when you shop. (It's smart to use different passwords, too, at each store.)
- Check retailers out at the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) -- or just stick with the stores you know.
- Don't enter any personal information, such as credit card numbers, until you make sure the site is safe. (Look for a padlock icon by the address, or a URL that begins with https or, more rarely, shttp.) Know that credit cards or services such as PayPal are safer than debit cards.
- Create a paper record of your online shopping, printing out description pages of the items you buy (including their prices), as well as online receipts, any correspondence with sellers, and sellers' terms of sale.
- Don't respond to unsolicited emails that arrive announcing great deals. They can be scams. Instead, go find good deals on your own. (You can also go to your favorite retailers' sites and sign up for their updates, or follow them at sites such as Facebook or Twitter.)
You'll also do well to only use WiFi networks you trust, and to look for third-party seals of approval on retailer sites, such as those from Truste and the Better Business Bureau. Be wary even of your friends -- if you see an email or even a Facebook post from a friend tauting some great deal, be careful, as their computer may have been compromised and the great deal might actually be a virus.
When you're finished shopping, turn your computer completely off, as computers that stay on for long periods give troublemakers more time to install viruses or other malware.
Since Thanksgiving is all about gratitude for the blessings we have, it's only natural to think about passing that on, and giving to others. When and how you do that is up to you. Some have proposed "Giving Tuesday," to help focus more deliberately on being altruistically generous.
There are many ways you can go about it: You can give of your time by volunteering. VolunteerMatch.com or VolunteeringInAmerica.gov can steer you to a specific organization.
You can also give money other assets to worthy charities, or give them your talent and time. Look up organizations that address causes you care most about at sites such as CharityNavigator.org, CharityWatch.org, GiveWell.org, Charities.org, GuideStar.org, and even the Better Business Bureau.
And finally, as the holiday season progresses and you think about what gifts to get for friends and family members, think outside the box. If you're a good cook, you might give coupons for meals cooked by you. If you're handy, you might offer to do a small household job for someone. If a friend has a favorite author, you might secure an autographed book of theirs. These days it's easy to have photo books, mugs, or calendars made, featuring photos that someone will treasure. Remember, too, that people tend to value experiences more than objects: Consider taking someone to the theater, to a ball game, to the zoo, or on a vacation.
Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian holds no position in any company mentioned. You can follow her on Twitter.