10 ways to reduce your holiday expenses
Think Twice Before Signing Up for Layaway Programs
In order to encourage purchases of hot-ticket items, big-box stores often offer layaway programs. This year, many companies are adjusting the fees that come with opening a layaway account: Wal-Mart lowered its open fee from $15 to $5 and Toys 'R' Us is suspending its usual $5 service fee until mid-December. This may seem like a solution for the best Christmas ever but as personal finance expert Suze Orman says, "If you are struggling to buy something, what that normally says is you don’t have the money for it." Additionally, down payments and any cancellation fees (which typically range from $10 to $15) still apply. If there is any question that you about paying the balance according to the store's payment schedule, steer clear of this financing option.
Take Advantage of Stores with Price-matching Offers, but Keep the Impulse Buys in Check
For the first time, stores like Target and Best Buy are going to include online retailers in their holiday price match programs. Target will match select online competitors through Dec. 16, including Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and ToysRUs.com; and Best Buy will match prices on appliances and electronics found on Amazon.com, Apple.com, Walmart.com, and other e-commerce sites. "Retailers will match the price and take the hit, but they’ll get the benefit of your impulse buys," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group. So stick to your holiday shopping list if you enter the store--retailers are masters at showing you something you don’t need but suddenly want. And remember not all stores honor price matching on Black Friday: Target's fine print excludes purchases made from November 22 to 26 and Best Buy excludes purchases made November 18 to 26.
Beware of Sneaky Promotions Like Tiered Savings
Retailers aren't just rolling out the holiday sales to get you in stores. "We are seeing some tiered offerings like save $5 if you spend $20, $10 if you spend $35, $15 if you spend $50 or more" says Brian Hoyt, senior writer for The RetailMeNot Insider, the online coupon site's consumer shopping blog. If you’re not planning to make the minimum-purchase amount, avoid shopping these sales. You'll feel compelled to add unnecessary items to your shopping cart just to meet the minimum-purchase amount, which will end up costing you.
Read the Fine Print for Free Shipping Promotions
Free shipping is the new normal, with nearly 90 percent of retailers expected to offer free shipping this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Of those retailers, about 40 percent plan to offer free standard shipping with certain conditions, such as a minimum purchase. Also, it's important to realize that “free shipping doesn't mean free returns,” says Hoyt. "Restocking and return shipping fees sometimes apply. For some consumer electronics, that fee could equal a double-digit percentage of the purchase price."
Extend Your Dollar with an Airline's Online Shopping Mall
According to the National Retail Federation, a record number 52 percent of consumers plan to shop online this holiday season. Fit into this category? Check out your favorite airline's online shopping portal. With each purchase you not only preserve your miles from expiring, you can actually earn bonus frequent-flier mile, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. Enter the name of the product or merchant into the search box, and the airline's shopping mall will list any relevant affiliated sites, plus how many miles you can earn from each site (sometimes 2, 3, 4 or even 20 miles per dollar spent). The catch? "Gift cards usually don't qualify, and sometimes new, hot products might not qualify,” Hobica says. Also, be sure to comparison shop to make sure prices are competitive. And resist the temptation to redeem miles for products or gift cards. It's a rip-off," Hobica says.
Use Flash-sale Sites with Restraint
Spot the perfect gift in an email from a daily deals site? Think twice before clicking purchase. "It's dangerous to buy gifts from flash-sale sites unless you really know the person--and read the fine print," says Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, because flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe and ideeli often have restrictions or strict return policies. It’s also hard to surf these sites without picking out something for yourself. To avoid the pressure of buying, consider changing your registered email address to an account you don't check as often. That way, temptation isn't staring you in the face every day.
Keep Your Holiday Entertaining Budget in Check
If you are planning to host a dinner party, your food budget can easily get out of control. "People cook way too many varieties of dishes," says Katherine Tallmadge, R.D., the author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations. "[But] your guests won't know the difference between four, six, or 10 side dishes." For example, instead of assembling an elaborate cheese plate, Tallmadge often lays out a chunk of blue cheese and apple slices that are more filling than crackers. Next, limit your menu to in-season ingredients, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, kale and carrots. For your entree, go with turkey or chicken. Lamb, duck, and prime rib are all very expensive." And rather than mixing drinks all night with top-shelf liquor, stick with Prosecco and sparkling water for pre-dinner drinks, then bring out affordable bottles of red or white wine for dinner.
Look for Homemade Crafts on Sites Like Etsy
Electronics may top the list for some shoppers, but the most thoughtful gifts don't always have a big price tag. "People are always looking for unique gifts," says Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail consulting firm. Corlett suggests shopping local craft fairs and markets or sites like Etsy to find something that is one-of-a-kind. You’ll typically spend less money buying directly from the artist and you won't have to dread visiting another store and seeing a lower price--or worse, seeing that your recipient already has an identical sweater, shirt, or bag.
Download Free Shopping Apps to Compare Prices
Many apps, like RedLaser and Shopkick, are alerting shoppers to the best prices. Scan a product's barcode with Google Shopper, and you can compare prices among participating local stores or e-retailers. You'll need to download the app Price Check by Amazon (the app is available for Android phones as well) to compare in-store prices to Amazon's, says Corlett, because the online retailer recently pulled its listings from Google's shopping site. After comparing prices, check for online coupons or promo codes on sites like RetailMeNot or Savings.com to get the lowest possible price for an item.
Save on Decorations
Want to outshine your neighbors this year? You're not alone. According to the National Retail Federation Shoppers are planning to spend about $52 this year on holiday decorations, up from last year's average of $49. Rather than buy new, hunt yard sales or Craigslist for bargains. Freecycle.org is an even better place to swap your ornaments, lights, wreaths, garlands, and other holiday decor. Simply post something that you will give away, and then you can use the site to claim other members' unwanted decorations.