Merry holiday shopping: 6 ways to cut your costs now

Card rewards, seasonal sales, mobile apps add up to savings

Guide to early holiday shopping

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Imagining a little December chill and holiday cheer is a merry idea when we just turned back our clocks. It can also save you money.

This year, one in eight Americans planned to start holiday shopping over the summer, according to a survey by couponing site RetailMeNot. And 54 percent plan to start shopping before Black Friday.

“It’s all about budgets,” says Sara Skirboll, senior director of public relations for the site. “People are getting smarter and savvier. They don’t want to spend their whole paycheck the week before Christmas.”

Inflatable Santas and artificial Christmas trees are all over stores, to the dismay of nearly 3 in 4 Americans we polled who say the holiday retail season starts too darn early. Instead of frowning upon the ever-earlier arrival of the holiday shopping season, why not bundle up on savings?

Whether you’re stashing a few small items, loading up the sleigh or prepping in November for December, here are six tips to start your holiday shopping early, and save money:

1. Make a gift list – and a budget.

Santa clearly knows what he’s doing. So take a tip from the big guy and put together a gift list early. And a budget.

How much money do you want to spend? Who’s on your gift list, and what do you want to give them? Put a real-life price tag on those presents and see if your budget between November and December can afford those expenses.

One smart move: Get out the credit card and bank statements “to see exactly what you spent your money on last year,” says Kendal Perez, spokeswoman for CouponSherpa.

There’s also no shame in trimming the gift list – or eliminating gifts entirely, especially if you’re on a tight budget. And that’s a lot easier to broach with friends and family now, before the holiday season gets rolling, she says.

Pro tip: With a shopping window of several weeks, consider an app to help you keep up with budgets and gift lists. Two Perez likes: Santa’s Bag – Christmas Gift List, and Christmas Gift List. Both keep track of you list of gifts, along with your holiday budget – “which is the most important part,” she says.

“It’s all about budgets. ... People are getting smarter and savvier. They don't want to spend their whole paycheck the week before Christmas.” 

2. Leverage card rewards.

Now is the time to take stock of card rewards, too. Skirboll recommends going back to your original gift list, “then working backward and seeing what points you have and how you can use them.”

For instance, many credit card rewards and affinity programs let you trade points for gift cards at major retailers. 

But check the rewards redemption rates. If program points are normally worth about a penny each – but gift cards are costing twice that – you might want to save those rewards for something else.

And it pays to know which cards will give you the most for various purchases, too, says Michelle Madhok, founder and CEO of SheFinds Media, publisher of online shopping site SheFinds.

“For example, Chase Sapphire cards give bonus point for restaurants, so I rack up a lot of miles by using that card whenever I eat out,” she says. “Chase Ink gives bonus points for cellphone and cable bills, so I use that for those purchases. Figure out what category you spend your money on and try to find cards that will give extra points when you shop.”

And if you’re planning to do most, or at least part, of your holiday shopping through Amazon, remember that some credit cards offer up to 5 percent cash back on Amazon purchases.

Pro tip: Buy gift cards at a discount – like a $100 card for $90 – and you’re automatically saving 10 percent on whatever you buy with it, says Skirboll.

But vet card-buying sites carefully and look for guarantees. 

Skirboll likes CardCash, which offers a 45-day guarantee on purchased card balances. Still, the smart move when buying used gift cards is to use them immediately, she says.

GiftCardGranny and Raise are also good outlets, says Madhok. 

3. Use apps, sites and price alerts.

Searching out deals is “a full-time job,” says Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing for DealNews.

But with the right sites and apps, those deals will come to you – along with coupons, rebates and special offers.

A few of the sites and apps favored by shopping experts: 

  • CamelCamelCamel: This one will alert you to target prices and price drops for items on Amazon. 
  • CouponSherpa and RetailMeNot: These two apps are great for getting coupons for both online and offline shopping. 
  • DealNews: Gives you a heads-up to deals. For Black Friday specials, throw in BFAds.net, too, says Perez. 
  • EbatesIbotta and TopCashBack: These rebate apps will give you cash back on purchases after you buy them.
  • PricePinx and ShopStyle: These let you set price alerts, so that you’ll know when targeted categories and items go on sale.

Pro tip: Trim the price of anything by stacking sales, e-coupons, discounted gift cards and cash-back offers, Skirboll says. And don’t forget to stack your card rewards, too.

4. Don’t forget store and brand sale events.

In early fall, many popular retailers and brands hold their annual, semi-annual or “friends and family” sales.

For an early heads-up and coupons, sign up for brand and retailer newsletters, follow your favorites on social media, and use brand/retailer apps and affinity clubs.

Pro tip: Rev up holiday rewards with your card’s shopping portals. Start your online shopping there, and you’ll often get discounts, special deals and additional points, says Perez. And you can use those rewards for holiday gifting and travel.

Chase, for instance, currently lets cardholders trade Ultimate Rewards points for Gap gift cards at a 20 percent discount, says Perez. Look for these types of offers “whenever possible” to make the most of holiday shopping dollars, she says.

After all, what better way to celebrate the holidays than without worrying about your credit card bill!

See related: Video: Saving on back-to-school shopping5 apps to turbocharge back-to-school savings


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Updated: 11-17-2017