By Hitha Prabhakar
Few things evoke panic like last-minute shopping for holiday gifts. If you've waited until now to head to the stores, you're not the only one.
According to the National Retail Federation, nearly 32 million people had yet to begin their shopping as of Dec 9. If they aren't careful, they run the risk of not getting the right gift at the right price, or worse, coming home empty-handed. To ensure no one is disappointed and you don't break the bank, check out the following tips:
1. Stick to your list. When shopping time starts to run low, common sense often disappears. The temptation to overspend is especially strong in stores where it's easy to become distracted. Go to stores with your list and a budget in mind -- and stick to it!
2. Shop online. Avoid the crowds and the stress by shopping online. Many online retailers are promising to deliver gifts by Christmas day if orders are placed by Dec. 20 using two-day shipping.
3. Get thrifty. Shop thrift stores, flea markets and consignment shops for unique gifts you won't find at the mall. The beauty of thrift stores is the volume and variety you'll find: You can do all your holiday shopping in one handy location, and you won't pay department store prices.
4. Donate to charity. If you've waited until the last minute, giving a monetary gift to charity is a great alternative. Many local organizations provide timely holiday aid to those in need -- from children's shelters to food banks. Making a donation to a charity in your area in the name of a relative or friend is the perfect gift for those people who don't really need anything new.
5. Shop early or late. When holiday shopping days start to dwindle and the number of procrastinating shoppers rises, do what you can to avoid the competition. Most stores offer early-morning and late-evening hours during the holidays, and these nonpeak shopping times offer better access to merchandise plus shorter checkout lines. If you have a day to spare, consider taking a day off from work and finishing your shopping while everyone else is at the office.
6. Compare and save. Once you have your last-minute gift ideas selected, it's likely you'll find several retailers offering the same items at different prices. It's much easier to toggle between websites offering product details at home than to drive from store to store. Make sure to check out prices, shipping cost, speed of shipping, gift wrapping availability and the company's return policy when comparing. You'll be surprised how much you can save.
7. Do-it-yourself. Handmade gifts don't have to be predictable or subpar. If you have a special talent for making baked goods or reclaimed wood picture frames, put that talent to use! What's more, you don't have to stand in store aisles debating which to color, size or shape to choose.
People spend a lot of time looking for the perfect gifts and with good reason. Having a set gift purchasing strategy is key to enjoying a less stressful holiday and an even happier financial situation in the new year!
Hitha Prabhakar is a consumer spending and retail analyst and Mint.com spokeswoman, the leading web and mobile money management tool that helps people understand and do more with their money.