hThe holiday shopping season will officially begin this week with the Black Friday sales on November 25th. Normally the busiest shopping day of the year, the sale event has expanded to become a multi-day promotion for many retailers, running into Cyber Monday – aimed at encouraging e-commerce-led purchases – and sometimes beyond.
Navigating these sales for bargains and holiday gifts can be stressful, with several competing deals and offers to sort through. Meanwhile, some buyers find that they end up getting buyers remorse when swept up in search of bargains.
Read more: Why do we buy things we don’t need?
TIME spoke to shopping and personal finance experts about how to make sure you’re spending wisely. They shared their tips for getting the best deals without the stress.
Be realistic and budget
Much of the stress around the holidays comes from wanting to live up to the gift-giving expectations of those you care about. But especially if you have kids, it’s important to make sure you don’t overwork yourself.
“It’s really important that people take it back and focus on what you personally can afford this year and stay within that,” says Trey Bodge, smart shopping expert at truetrade.com.
“Give yourself grace,” says Tori Dunlap, entrepreneur and the person behind the @herfirst100k TikTok account. Budgeting shouldn’t be a hard limit, but rather a handrail that will ensure you shop with purpose. “That’s the permission, you have to spend money without feeling guilty,” says Dunlap.
A budget during the holiday season can simply be a list of who you need gifts for, potential gift ideas, and how much you’d like to spend on the gift. If you find you don’t have the income to buy a gift for everyone in the family, be honest with your family and friends about the financial situation or suggest alternatives like a secret Santa or a white elephant, Bodge says.
To gauge how much they should expect to spend this year, Dunlap suggests shoppers look at last year’s budget and how they handled it. She says that thinking about whether you brought credit card debt into the year with you and considering how your financial situation has changed can help you shape how much you expect to spend this coming holiday season.
Several major retailers such as Target, Walmart and Best buy, are offering their Black Friday deals online before Thanksgiving. If you are worried about not being able to purchase items due to increased online traffic and possible website crashes, you should check out the deals before Black Friday. Target, for example, offers daily and weekly deals, some of which are exclusively available online. Daily deals will arise through Dec. 24 while supplies last, the retailer said in a statement.
Shoppers can also take advantage of street pickup on select items and locations at stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s and JCPenney. Same or next day delivery is also available at select department stores.
While shopping in person is useful for products that need to be seen firsthand, online shopping often offers a greater selection of items in terms of size or color and makes it much easier to save.
Bodge and Dunlap recommend downloading the Paypal Honey Browser Extension, which finds coupons and other offers for shoppers. Honey also tracks the historical prices of an item, making it easier to see if an item’s price actually dropped during the Black Friday weekend.
The Paypal Honey extension is also available for mobile browsers like Safari as well as via an app.
Greg Lisiewski, vice president of PayPal Shopping, told TIME that he recommends using the extension if you’re just browsing online, while the app is more useful if you know exactly what you want to buy. “You can actually put in the product name and we’ll do the pricing at different merchants…instead of having to jump from site to site.”
If you decide to order online, Bodge suggests placing your order by December 14th, as that’s the last official day retailers can guarantee your order will arrive before the holidays.
Make the store rules work for you
Holiday return policies vary from store to store, but most retailers allow shoppers to return items purchased this time of year through January. Best Buy, for example, allows customers to return all gifts purchased between Oct. 24 and Dec. 31 until Jan. 14, while Amazon extends returns until January 31.
It’s also worth considering joining a retailer’s free loyalty program, which gives access to exclusive discounts ahead of time.
The stores also offer holiday price match guarantees, which will lower the price of an item if you find an identical item for less at a competing retailer. This can be done at the time of purchase or often after you’ve purchased the product – you’ll usually need to provide proof of purchase for this. Stores like Target also match Target.com prices to in-store purchases.
Although the sales are now available and continue through the holidays, Bodge says shoppers can find the best deals on small home appliances, like security cameras and robotic vacuum cleaners, on Black Friday. Deals on electronics (laptops, tablets, etc.) are strong from Black Friday through Cyber Monday.
Take a hit – and watch out for predatory behavior
Retailers can often create a sense of urgency with door-smashing deals or ads that say supply is limited. That can encourage shoppers to panic buy and overspend on things they don’t need, Bodge told TIME.
“Setting a budget for yourself can [also] be really helpful,” Bodge says. “If you don’t have yourself on your list and you haven’t set a budget for yourself, you might end up in [a trap] from one [gift] for them, one for me, which puts a lot of people over budget.”
Dunlap also asks people to think strategically about how they spend their money. Responsible consumers should use their credit cards as their primary method of purchasing items to maximize points, Air Miles and other possible cash back offers for select stores.
However, buyers should not rely on credit cards or online offers such as “Buy Now, Pay Later” if they will not be able to repay what they have borrowed within a reasonable period of time to avoid accruing interest.
Dunlap also advises against buying store credit cards unless shoppers actually buy or spend a lot of money at those retailers.
“Please note that many of these stores, when they present you with their credit card, will call it something like a rewards card. It’s not a rewards card,” says Dunlap. “It’s a credit card, and store rewards cards tend to have higher interest rates. So if you’re someone who hasn’t been able to pay off credit cards on time and in full, a rewards card will hurt you.
Do your research and look beyond the big box retailers
Customers should also look at their existing accounts to ensure they are getting the best deals. “Make sure you’re aware of the offers your credit cards may have,” Bodge tells TIME.
It’s also worth looking at perks and offers retailers can provide to incentivize customers to choose them over competitors, even if the items are the same price, such as an additional gift card with your purchase, says Boj.
Now is also a good time to consider supporting smaller retailers while you still get a deal and maybe even find something more unique than you would get elsewhere. Small Business Saturday, a marketing initiative aimed at encouraging shoppers to support these sellers, falls on November 26 this year. “You have more buying power during the holidays than any other time of year, and small businesses, women-owned businesses…[these] people need those dollars the most, so you can vote with your dollars every day of the year, but especially during the holidays,” Dunlap told TIME.
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