Editor’s note: We have a love/hate relationship with the madness of holiday shopping. On the one hand, shopping sales can net you more stuff for less cash. On the other, submitting to grating ads, ever-earlier store openings, and panic-inducing crowds is hardly a pleasant way to spend our precious time. Today and tomorrow we’ll explore the Black Friday paradox. Today: How you can take advantage of the frenzy. Tomorrow: Why you may just want to stay home, instead. -David
If you think Thanksgiving nearly plays second fiddle to Black Friday — the kickoff for the holiday shopping season — you wouldn’t be far off. Up to 147 million people plan to shop Black Friday weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), according to a new shopping survey by the National Retail Federation. That’s a slight decrease from the 152 million who had such plans in 2011, but that could be because 52.8 percent of Americans have already started their holiday shopping — up from 51.4 percent last year.
Shopping Black Friday weekend, Cyber Monday, and all the shopping days through Jan. 1 has both its rewards and its hazards. Sales will be everywhere, and the early line is that some doorsbusters will reveal unbelievable price lows, such as 32″ HDTVs under $100, according to dealnews. But it’s also a time to exercise caution, as your budget can shoot into the red faster than you can say “stale fruitcake.” Last year, American shoppers spent more than $700 each on holiday shopping. And that’s a lot of money at a time of year when heating bills soar, holiday travel adds to the bottom line, and independent contractors still owe Uncle Sam one more quarterly federal tax payment.
While we’re not against shopping, we’re all for you preserving your financial health and doing it wisely. Here are eight tips for surviving and thriving this Black Friday weekend, and all of the shopping days ahead.
1) Make a budget and shopping list in advance — and and stick to it
If you have tendencies to impulse shop or compulsively shop, this is the most important thing you can do before setting foot into a mall or big-box store. It’s easy to get carried away when you see huge price cuts on everything. But start smart by making your shopping list before you head out, and buying items only on that list.
Just as important, set a dollar limit on your spending, one that’s guided by how much you can pay for in cash, or within a month-long period if using credit cards. If you can’t resist a few unplanned purchases, set aside part of your budget for “intangibles” that might grab your attention.
2) Use tools like RedLaser to comparison shop on the spot
RedLaser is hands down my favorite app for comparison shopping, because it’s easily saved me thousands of dollars, especially in scenarios when “sale” is just a deceptive cover for an already inflated price.
Free for iPhone, Windows and Android, RedLaser allows you to scan a barcode, then check to see who actually has the lowest price, online or in stores. I pulled this out at a luggage sale and showed a salesman bragging about his “50 percent off” price that he was actually $75 above the cheapest price on line. When he refused to price match, I walked out and haven’t returned to that store since.
3) The basics: Eat, drink and shop wary
To be sure, midnight sales require sleep deprivation to reap the rewards. But don’t compound the stress on your body and mind by going out on an empty stomach or without provisions. The sensory overload you’ll experience has but one purpose: to part you from your hard-earned money. Bring a water bottle and snacks in your coat if you need sustenance to get you through your shopping run. (Need we say don’t overeat, either?)
4) Often, used is better
While this may sound like sacrilege in a society that craves shiny and new, I prefer to think of it as smart shopping in a country that trashes far too much stuff every year. Look on craigslist and eBay to find gently used and refurbished items that make super gifts, in categories from clothing to electronics. Just this week I bought a 150 watt Sony receiver on craigslist for $50; it was in fabulous working condition without a scratch on it. From kid clothes to simple home furnishings, I’ll do lots of shopping on eBay this holiday and come out far better financially than if I bought at a store. What’s more, eBay offers protections for buyers that will keep you from getting ripped off.
5) Clean out the closet before you clean up shopping
If everyone else is going to shop anyway, then why not sell off sweaters you don’t wear, home electronics you don’t use, and other items that sit around gathering dust? Selling on eBay and craigslist is easier than ever, and getting rid of just a few things you no longer need can fund more holiday shopping painlessly. The bargain hunters are out in record numbers this time of year; why not give them something to get excited about?
6) Shop online while standing in line
Last year, dealnews discovered that 70 percent of in-store Black Friday deals can be found online for the same or better prices. Black Friday shopping via your couch is definitely the way to go, but for those few deals that will drag you out of bed at 4 a.m., chances are you’ll still need to arrive early and be prepared to stand in a long checkout line. Why not ring up some bargains in the meantime? If you have your shopping list handy, use a smartphone or tablet to shop while you wait. The dealnews folks also have a Black Friday app you can download.
7) Use (and get) the lowest interest rate credit cards
We’re going to stick to that budget, right? And buy smart, right? Even with such intentions, it’s possible you’ll carry balances into the new year that you should’ve paid off within 30 days. Now, before the shopping begins, make sure you’re using the lowest rate interest card in your arsenal. We list over a dozen credit cards with 0% introductory APRs for up to 18 months. So if you have to charge some of your holiday purchases, get one of these cards to save a bundle on finance charges.
8) Waiting has its benefits
You can also do what I did in 2011 when Black Friday rolled around: hold out. While many folks try to do all of their holiday shopping exclusively on Black Friday, quite a few items see better prices in December and even January. These include name brand HDTVs, toys, calendars and jewelry. Consider staggering out your shopping list to take advantage of sales categories that will see better bargains during the tail end of the shopping season.
In our sedentary society, Black Friday is the closest many of us come to competitive sport. While it’s fun to shop and to snag a great bargain, you might see the savings on a big-screen TV evaporate after just a few months of credit card interest. What’s more, there’s nothing festive about racking up drastic debt and throwing your credit rating into jeopardy.
Target your purchases with precision, watch your bottom line like a hawk — and most of all, remember that the warmest memories at any holiday come from truly priceless sources: time with friends and family, and lending a hand to those less fortunate. If you’re so inclined, it’s a great time of year for another kind of giving, as in charitable contributions — a subject I’ll take up in a future column.