NEW YORK (AP) ? Countless “experts” are eager to tell you how to do your holiday shopping.
Some of their tips are obvious: Set a budget. Some tips only help stores: If there’s someone on your list who doesn’t need anything, buy a gift card. Some are useless at this point: Shop throughout the year.
We’ve cut through the noise to offer some warnings, workarounds and hints that actually are helpful.
? SEEK DEALS A NIGHT AHEAD: If a sale is advertised to start on, say, a Tuesday, you may be able to avoid the crowds by going to the store after 6 p.m. that Monday. Many retailers program their registers the night before a promotion begins. That means the deal might come up even if the signs on the floor haven’t been changed, according to the National Retail Federation. If the sale price doesn’t automatically pop up, many retailers will give you the deal if you ask.
? BEWARE OF CARDS BEARING GIFTS: As many as one-fourth of the value of gift cards remains unspent in a year, according to one estimate by Consumer Reports. People lose them, forget about them or let fees eat away their value. That is why stores push them so hard. So make sure your recipient actually wants and can use a gift card; otherwise, consider cash or a check.
Be even more wary of buying a discounted gift card online. You can get great deals from people who legitimately can’t use a particular card they’ve received. But many gift cards available on Craigslist or eBay are counterfeit, and you won’t find out until you or your loved one tries to spend them. Only buy if a card seller is willing to meet you at the store so her card can be verified.
? HOMEMADE COSTS MONEY TOO: Lots of budget-savvy shoppers think they can save by giving homemade presents. Baking usually does turn out to be less expensive than buying, but crafting is not always cost-effective. If you have visions of whipping up your own hand lotion, first calculate the cost of liquid glycerin, fancy bottles and the toll on your blood pressure if it turns out wrong or takes longer than you expected. Likewise, sewing often costs more than buying something ready to wear.
? GIVE PLASTIC A PASS: No matter how sweetly the sales associates asks if you want to sign up for a store credit card ? or how enticing the discount ? remember that opening a new card can take a costly bite from your credit score. Consider giving your holiday shopping a nice old-fashioned feel ? by using cash.
? PATIENCE PAYS OFF: The best deals often aren’t available on Black Friday. Most retailers slash prices on a few noticeable items ? often only their second-string offerings ? just to get you in the door.
“If you’ve researched one thing and you end up buying five other things, you don’t necessarily get the best deal on the other five,” said Steve Abernethy, CEO of SquareTrade, which sells warranties for consumer electronics. “In general, the best advice is to walk away.”
Or at least wait.
Dealnews, a website that hunts for discounts, says prices on many toys drop as much as 50 percent by mid-December. The site also recommends buying jewelry almost any other time of year (when so many people are buying, stores have no incentive to keep prices low) and waiting until New Year’s to get a new winter coat.
? TALK TO YOUR KIDS: Parents who are struggling in the weak economy but keep buying whatever their kids dream of aren’t doing the kids any favors, says Mandy Williams, co-author of a personal finance and lifestyle book “What I Learned About Life When My Husband Got Fired!”
Williams recommends talking about what your family can afford to spend and asking kids to help decide how to divvy up the funds among decorations, eating out, presents and so on.
If they come in under budget, let them keep the extra. That’s a usually a good motivator for people of all ages.