Don't let spending missteps turn your holidays blue
First it was the door-busters dangled by America's retailers on Thanksgiving night.
Then Black Friday, which tumbled right into Small Business Saturday. And then? It was Cyber Monday.
And it's only early December.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips to keep your holiday shopping season a little more jolly and a lot less jarring on the wallet.
1. Makin' a list • One of the best ways to avoid overspending is to write down a list of everyone you want to give to, from your kids to your haircutter. Decide what you can comfortably spend for each person.
"[A list] helps you prioritize how much you can realistically spend for the season," said Casey Bond, managing editor for GoBankingRates.com, a personal finance site based in El Segundo, Calif. "Sit down, make that plan: This is how much I really want to spend."
2. Embrace technology •A number of new tech tools make it easier than ever to snag holiday bargains, said Jake Gibson, chief operating officer of consumer finance site NerdWallet.com in San Francisco.
One of his favorites is Passbook, an iPhone application through which you gather all your gift cards, boarding passes, digital tickets, rewards cards and coupons on your smartphone.
"It's a pop-up notification on your phone. If you walk into Sears or Old Navy, it'll alert you that coupons are available," said Gibson. "I use it every day to buy my coffee because my Starbucks' gift card is loaded onto Passbook."
Another bit of shopper tech, he noted, is Target's mobile shopping tool for top-selling kids' toys. In a Target store, you scan the toy's QR code and it can be purchased and shipped via your mobile phone.
3. Credit, cash or debit? • We all know that credit card spending can spiral out of control, which is why many experts recommend using cash or a debit card.
But the holidays can be different, said John Ulzheimer, consumer education president with SmartCredit.com. With identity thieves "working overtime" during the holidays, he said credit cards offer more ID theft protection, especially if you dispute fraudulent charges.
"If you have the self-control to not spend more than planned, credit cards are a safer option."
4. Be card wise • "If you can't afford to pay off your credit card in November, then you can't afford to add a lot more to it in December," said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, a credit card comparison site. "If you must use a credit card to pay for Christmas, make sure you can pay it off by Easter."
If you have more than one card, use the one with the highest limit, so holiday purchases don't push you into debt ratios that can hurt your credit score.
Use cards that offer rewards, cash back and other money-saving deals. Citi card users, for instance, can get "Price Rewind" refunds of up to $250 if a purchased item is found at least $25 lower within 30 days.
5. Skip the store cards • Avoid those tempting store credit cards offered when you're standing at the cash register. Their discounts 10 percent to 20 percent off everything you're buying are enticing. But the cards often carry some of the worst terms out there, said Ulzheimer, with interest rates as high as 24.99 percent and low credit limits of $1,000 or less.
6. Track those receipts • After the holidays, store receipts can go AWOL, unless you've corralled them in one place. It can be as simple as keeping an envelope at home where you stash every gift receipt.
For a more high-tech solution, look at sites such as ReturnGuru.com. You take smartphone pictures of your receipts, and it sends you a digital alert when they're getting ready to expire.
Either way, when it's time for the inevitable post-holiday returns, you've got easy access to all your receipts.
7. Shop thrifty • Be creative and check out local thrift shops that sell "gently used" goods to benefit various charities. It's a very "green" way to pick up bargain gifts, many of which are new and unused, from sports equipment to fine china to appliances.
8. Gift card trading • Want to buy or sell your gift cards? Sites such as Cardpool.com, GiftCardRescue.com or PlasticJungle.com let you sell unwanted gift cards for cash or buy other people's cards at a discount. The gift cards represent hundreds of well-known brands, from Sears to Victoria's Secret, Macy's to Home Depot.
Say you want to unload a $100 gift card from American Eagle Outfitters. Cardpool, a San Francisco-based site, will pay you $79 by check if you mail in the card; for a $100 Babies R Us card, they'll pay $82.
If you want to buy gift cards, they're sold at discounts of up to 30 percent. At GiftCardRescue, for example, you'll pay $22.50 for a $25 Sunglass Hut card or $45 for a Pottery Barn $50 card.
9. Best deals • If you missed or avoided the Black Friday frenzy, no worries. Many experts say better deals on certain items often land in the last week before Christmas.
Household goods, such as bedding, linens, towels and decorative items, often get marked down with deep discounts, for instance.
The risk of waiting, of course, is that a coveted item might be sold out.
10. Play it safe • One of the worst ways to lose money during the holidays is theft. When out shopping, follow these common-sense reminders:
Don't carry more than one credit card, in case your wallet or purse is lost or stolen. Don't leave packages, laptops or cellphones visible in your back or front seat; if you don't have a trunk, bring a blanket to throw over valuables. Keep your purse tucked under an arm and strapped across your torso; stick your wallet in a front pocket. Don't pull out a wad of cash at the register. Always be aware of your surroundings and park in well-lit areas.
And a final note. Go easy on yourself during the seasonal spending spree.
"It's so easy to get caught up in the consumer side of the holidays," said Bond. "The best thing is to stick to your budget and not set yourself up for a debt hangover in January. Just because it's a great deal doesn't mean you need it."