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How To Spend Less on Holiday Shopping

Get great deals on holiday gifts without breaking the bank with these tips from our partners at Consumers' Checkbook.

Jamie Lettis headshot

Jamie Lettis (She, Her, Hers)
Consumers' Checkbook Associate Editor
Dec 15, 2022 in: Spending & Shopping

For many people, winter is not just the season of giving, it's also the season of shopping. Some look forward to this annual tradition while others grumble at the very thought of scouring the internet or trekking to a mall or big box store to find the perfect gift — or any gift. Whether shopping brings you joy or pain, here is a roundup of our top tips for saving money and avoiding hassles this holiday season.

Beware of Sales and Discounts

Consumers' Checkbook's researchers spent 33 weeks tracking sale prices at 25 major retailers and found that stores' sales and discounts often aren't really deals at all. Retailers advertised sale prices and discounts that never end.

Even if a retailer promises savings of 60% or more, it could be a marketing gimmick, not a genuine discount -- and likely not the lowest available price. Before buying, shop around to make sure you're not overpaying.

Compare Prices

There are dozens of smartphone apps and websites that can help you shop for the lowest prices quickly, including Honey, PriceGrabber, ShopSavvy, and Yahoo! Shopping. Amazon's price-checking tool is integrated into its mobile app. CamelCamelCamel, which tracks price histories of items sold by Amazon for the past year, is also helpful with identifying how low an item's price might go on that site.

A quick internet search will usually help you determine if a store is offering a low or high price. Also, check prices offered by the store's main competitors (for example, Lowe's/Home Depot and Target/Walmart).

None of these search options work perfectly, but spending a few minutes using these tools usually results in big savings.

Search for Promo Codes

When making purchases online, you'll often see spaces where you can enter a promotion or coupon code. These spaces may as well be labeled, "Hey! Here's free money!" Do an internet search for discount codes for the site (for example, search for "Lands' End discount code"). There are several websites that try to track these deals. Check out CouponCabin, RetailMeNot, and SlickDeals.

Sometimes you'll only find expired deals or false leads, but the few minutes of effort is worth the potential savings. Consumers' Checkbook found codes to cut 40% off a photo order from Shutterfly, $20 off a $100 Foot Locker buy and 40% off at Gap. You rarely need to shell out for shipping because there are so many codes that offer that for free. And many sites will let you stack coupons for even greater savings or free shipping.

Ask About Special Discounts

If you're a senior, military or veteran family, teacher, student, or first responder, check whether you qualify for a special discount. Some retailers only allow these discounts for in-store purchases, but others apply the discount to online orders after a verification process. New Balance, for example, is offering a 25% discount to verified members of the military, first responders, nurses, teachers, college students, hospital employees and government employees until the end of the year. Older than 55? Check The Senior List for a roundup of discounts available to you.

Try Cash-Back Shopping Portals

Many online retailers pay referral commissions to businesses that send them customers. Online shopping portals, including BeFrugal, CouponCabin, Rakuten, and MrRebates give their customers a cut of those funds (anywhere from 1% to 40% of the shopper's total purchase amount). Adidas was recently offering 15% cash back via Rakuten; Nike was offering 10%. Especially when combined with the store's coupons, that extra money can make a significant difference in your total spending.

You must click through to the retailer's website via the portal's website (or install the portal's browser extension, which most of them offer, to connect automatically). Most portals let you simplify things — and remind you of available rebates — with the extensions and mobile apps that tell you when there's cash back available as you visit websites.

A feature of one cash-back service is that they keep track of stores' promo and coupon codes and automatically apply those discounts as you add items to your cart. Sometimes one portal will offer a better rebate than others. Before making a big buy, check with CashbackMonitor, which aggregates offers for various rebate sites and reports the best current payouts.

Check Social Media for Deals

Connect with retailers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up for their promotional emails, which retailers use to share discount codes and other deals. Many stores offer one-time discounts of 10% to 25% when you agree to sign up for their email lists. Have more than one email address? Sign up with another address the next time you're ready to buy.

If the retailer has a frequent customer program, consider joining it. You may qualify for special offers, like free shipping and birthday discounts. Following style bloggers and Instagram influencers can also pay off when retailers partner with them to offer special deals to their followers.

Keep an Eye on Your Snail Mail

It may seem passé, but many retailers still send paper catalogs and coupons. The trick is to avoid temptation for things you don't need and only save the ones you know jibe with your shopping list.

Ask for a Price Match

If you're shopping in-store, and find a lower price elsewhere, ask a salesperson or cashier for a price match.

Watch for Price Adjustments After You Buy

Keep an eye on retailers' sites for a couple weeks after you've shopped to see if prices have dropped. Many stores will refund the difference. Check policies on websites. Some stores offer an adjustment within seven days of purchase, some 30 days or longer.

For example, Target has announced an extended price adjustment window for the 2022 holiday season: Oct. 6 until Dec. 24.

Use Caution When Applying for New Credit Cards

You can usually get a big one-time discount for your first purchase made with a retailer-issued credit card, and with some you continue to get smaller regular discounts or rebates every time you use their cards.

But before signing up for a dozen retailer credit cards, know that each application will trigger an inquiry on your credit report, and might negatively affect your credit score. Even more important: Most store credit cards charge very high interest rates (routinely 25% APR or higher); avoid these high interest rates by paying the bill in full each month. And compare any rebate programs with those offered by other cards.

Think Twice Before Signing Up for Buy Now, Pay Later Offers

Buy now, pay later (BNPL) is relatively new to the retail scene, offered as a convenient way to pay for gift purchases. The basic model for retail purchases is simple: Buy what you want and pay back the loan in equal installments, often without interest.

While BNPL is marketed as a smarter, more consumer-friendly way to pay, these point-of-sale loans can lure you into buying things you can't afford. Sellers offer BNPL because they've found these arrangements help them close deals, but most consumers who sign up for these plans don't really know how they work.

Not all BNPL offers are the same; check the terms and conditions before using a service. Most BNPL loans have late fees, which in some cases, may be reported to the credit bureaus and damage your credit history. It's important to find out how that company handles late payments before you sign up.

Very important: BNPL loans lack the consumer protections that apply to credit cards. If you buy something worth more than $50 with a credit card, and it does not arrive, or the quality is unsatisfactory -- and you've tried to resolve the issue with the seller -- you can dispute the charge with the credit card company. You don't get the same protections on BNPL transactions.

Consider Gift Cards and Experience Gifts

Most of us have too much stuff. You can avoid gifting potentially unwanted items -- and eliminate the pressure of shopping during the crazy holiday shopping season -- by buying gift cards and experience gifts (yoga passes, cooking classes, hotel or airline gift cards, massages, museum memberships). Services you can provide also make wonderful presents (for example, a coupon for babysitting or a homemade meal). Want to make the gift feel extra special, even if it's a certificate or card? Wrap it beautifully, and possibly include a small, practical item to go with it, such as tennis balls to go with a certificate for lessons.

Buy Local

The pandemic was tough on small businesses. Supporting local merchants is a win-win: You'll feel good about keeping your dollars in the community, and you'll help local businesses succeed. In addition to brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants, check out craft fairs, holiday bazaars, farmers' markets, and independently owned salons and spas for gift cards.

Beware of Scams

If prices seem too good to be true, they probably are. Scammers love to lure shoppers via text and email with offers on hot and tough-to-get items. Do your homework before buying from third-party sellers on large sites like Amazon, Facebook and Walmart. They sometimes make returns difficult, and sometimes products never arrive.

Spot a great deal? Make sure the seller has tons of positive reviews and check for complaints on file with the Better Business Bureau.

About Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and are a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers -- home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free and can get 50% off their annual subscription.

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BECU does not accept liability for Consumers' Checkbook and does not endorse nor accept liability for the use of businesses, products, or services listed on their site. Any information provided by BECU regarding Consumers' Checkbook is provided without any representation, guaranty, or warranty as to its accuracy, quality, or completeness.

Jamie Lettis headshot

Jamie Lettis (She, Her, Hers)
Consumers' Checkbook Associate Editor

Jamie promotes research and information for Consumers' Checkbook so people can benefit from it. She also writes and edits articles and assists with investigations. Learn more about Jamie's education and career on LinkedIn.