Holiday Shopping on a Shoestring

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Attention K-Mart Shoppers–well, and all other shoppers. It seems like it’s going to be a shoestring shopping season for the 2008 holidays. At least that’s what some experts are predicting, saying that the small increase in holiday spending in 2008 will be the weakest since 1991. And guess what? Technically, our country was in a recession in 1991.

I know that many people are afraid to utter the “R” word, for fear of a market collapse or utter financial chaos–wait, that’s already almost occurred in the past two weeks–but for frugal shoppers like us, this could actually be good news.

For one thing, if retailers sense that a soft holiday-shopping season is about to occur, you’ll start seeing discounts sooner rather than later. My guess is that, like last year, you’ll have holiday items out long before Halloween, to entice us to shop.

If you’re on a budget, spreading out your shopping over a longer period of time may be the smartest thing you could do–especially if you’ve seen your retirement and savings portfolios get cut in half in recent days, or if you were hoping extended credit might get you through the holidays.

With that in mind, here are some of my tips for getting through this holiday-shopping season on a shoestring:

* Think rebates this holiday season.
I know that most people find rebates to be a total pain in the butt, but my guess is that in order to lure more shoppers into stores, you’re going to see more rebates emerging this fall. And while you usually have to jump through hoops to get a rebate, take the time and jump those hoops. I mean four out of 10 of us don’t bother filing for rebates, meaning we never collect rebate money that could have been ours.

Many retailers are actually making it easier for customers to complete rebates by moving the operations online. Case in point: when we recently purchased my new MacBook, we took advantage of Apple’s promotion that we could get a “free” iPod Nano with the purchase of our laptop. It was “free” because we could file online for a $199 rebate, the cost of the Nano. We did that, and the check arrived about five days later–giving us a “free” Nano that we can use as someone’s Christmas present this year. Similarly, I purchased a cross-cut shredder at Staples that came with a rebate. Through the Staples Easy Rebates site, I am now eligible to receive a $30 VISA gift card, which I plan to use when doing holiday shopping.

* Use unused gift cards whenever possible.
A year ago I explained how we had created a gift-card wallet. This “wallet” is a central place where we keep not only all the gift cards that we’ve received as gifts but also any affinity cards we have for stores or punch cards from various eateries, where when you buy 10 water ice, you get the 11th free–stuff like that. If you still have gift cards lying around from the last holiday season, try to use them first when buying gifts this holiday season. This approach makes sense for two reasons. First, you will avoid spending your own cash on gifts. And second, some gift cards start to lose their value or start incurring a “maintenance” fee if they aren’t used during a certain period of time or if they sit idle for a year or more. So in order to avoid having either penalty occur–leaving you with less money to spend on your gift card–cash those gift cards in.

* Cash in credits, cash back and other “points” to pay for shopping excursions.
These days just about everyone I know has a credit card that does more than let that person charge purchases–by using the credit card, that person is earning credits for future purchases, points for vacations or cash back, in one form or another (check or gift card). We have one such credit card that let’s us earn gift cards that we can use for grocery shopping but we can also cash in our points for gifts cards to retailers like Lowe’s and The Gap. Credit cards like Discover send you cash back based on your spending, and other credit card companies have similar programs. If you’ve got one of these cards, when was the last time you actually cashed in your chips, as it were, and took advantage of the money you’d earned? If it’s been awhile, I would recommend taking some time now to figure out what kind of extra money you might be able to get for holiday shopping in the coming months.

* Buy “new” items in used environments.
I’ll bet that this year, more people will be doing their holiday shopping in off-beat places where they kind find nearly new or gently used items for the special people on their list. I’m thinking stores like Plato’s Closet and Children’s Orchard, both of which stock gently used clothing for kids and teens, and even Goodwill, which now has an online component to it called Shop Goodwill. I mean, recently my tween daughter found a brand-new Aeropostale skort at Goodwill–the tags were still on it–for $5. It would have sold for at least three times that in the store.

If you have book lovers you need to buy for, keep in mind that many libraries have book sales with donated hardcovers and paperbacks, many of which may never have even had their bindings cracked. So you can get books at a can’t-believe-it price, and you’ll support a good cause–your local library.

* Go couch diving for loose change.
We have a terrible habit in this house of leaving money in our pockets. I think it’s because so many cashiers these days hand me back my change with the coins sitting on top of the bills. (When did it become acceptable to do that?) Instead of handing me the coins and then the bills, I have no time to put the change away in my wallet, and I usually just shove it in my pocket. Which then leads to our laundry room (namely the dryer) becoming a treasure trove of “found money”. Or we have a terrible habit of remembering to empty our pockets at night, onto the top of a dresser, but then we sweep all of the loose change into a random drawer. That means that at any given time, we have a lot of loose money floating around our house. That’s why, every few months, I try to spend an hour or so hunting down the change and then counting it up. Since it’s been awhile since I last counted our change, I decided to do so this past weekend. And in about 40 minutes I was able to come up with $86.44. I rolled most of it so I could bring it to the bank for bills. Any chance you’ve got loose change hanging around the house that you can collect, count and then use for your holiday shopping? Why not give it a go?

Do you have other frugal holiday shopping tips up your sleeve? If so, I’d love to hear them. Post a comment to share with the “class.”

8 thoughts on “Holiday Shopping on a Shoestring”

  1. I'll be making almost all of my holiday gifts this year! They will all be edible, fitting in with trimming my budget in both the grocery & gift categories. People on my list will get homemade bread, granola, muffins, biscotti, etc… It will cost me very, very little, take the same amount of time as making my way through holiday crowds, save gas, and, hopefully, delight my family and friends!

  2. Another tip: sales on websites. I just made a big order from Vera Bradley because four of their patterns are about to retire. Like ‘get out of debt guy’ said, advance planning can help. All four gifts are what these ladies will love and well under what I budget per gift per person.

  3. Hi,
    Found your blog through the Zwaggle site. Love your tips..and boy do I need them for saving money, especially this time of year. Thanks!

  4. This year, maybe more than most, preparing in advance for the holiday shopping is critical. Many families will pile on the debt this holiday season and in a down market economy, that will sink their financial boat.

    Maybe this is the year to think about alternative gifts like baking a present or giving your time to take a friend out instead of throwing more debt onto the credit cards.

    Call me crazy but I’d rather than time with a friend or a hug than a chia pet.

  5. Yeah, the final-sales thing is a problem with these kinds of presents. Oh, well, that’s what regifting is for!

    I love the idea of giving a potted bulb/plant as a gift. A few years ago I gave my mother a Christmas cactus, and she always called whenever the cactus would bloom each year–even when it was nowhere near Christmas. This is an excellent money-saving, green and unique idea for all of us to consider this holiday season. Thanks for posting the tip.

  6. While doing some last minute shopping at a local big box store I noticed Amaryllis bulbs drastically reduced. I grabbed 5 or 6 of them and also got some simple, but nice glazed pots for them because the cheap plastic pots that come with the bulbs don’t weigh enough to counter the weight of a fully grown flower. We gave these out at our family gathering Christmas Eve. These plants generated many subsequent phone calls from the recipients updating us on how the plants were growing and how beautiful the flowers were when the bloomed in January. The total cost for each was 6-7 dollars with the most expensive part being the pot, which could have been purchased less expensively this time of year when the garden centers are having clearance sales.

  7. I shopped summer sidewalk sales for the holidays. I scored some unique finds for the familiy. Plus, a lot of stores, especially stores that see most of their customers in the summer, were selling holiday items for dirt cheap.

    The only problem with this strategy is that most sales are final, so no returns. That’s why I steer clear of clothing purchases for other people at sidewalk sales


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