How to Bag a Bargain When Holiday Shopping

Last Updated Nov 28, 2009 4:39 PM EST

Getting ready to go into a shopping frenzy? The holiday shopping season kicks off this Friday, with retailers offering huge sales on everything from electronics to clothing. But if you want to survive the holiday season without regrets and a miserable debt hangover, spend a few minutes now figuring out how to bag real bargains on Black Friday.

Here are some tips provided by bargain bloggers, ConsumerWorld, the Better Business Bureau and others.

1. Make a list. Even Santa needs a list to keep track of who he needs to buy for and what they want. Going into a mall without one is dangerous, with all the shiny objects vying for your attention. SmartCookie Sandra Hanna tells me that people go into something of a hypnotic trance when they hit the malls at the holidays. Lights, holiday music, good cheer--the next thing you know you're in the dressing room trying on things for yourself, she said. Make that list and find a disciplined shopping buddy who will keep you on task, she suggests. Furthermore, your list will help you do some advance research by checking the web for the best prices, before you hit the mall and get all starry-eyed about monster mark-downs. (Check the Dumbest Things You Do With Your Money.)

2. Check it twice. Do you really need to give all of your girlfriends costly gifts? Do they really need to reciprocate? If this has been a lean year for you and for some of the other people on your gift list, consider going out for a cocktail with your gift-giving friends to set some limits.

Instead of having everyone give everyone something, you could host a pot-luck lunch and secret-Santa exchange, where you'd each just shop for one, for example. Maybe instead of giving costly gifts, you can exchange Christmas ornaments or your favorite recipes. (Taste it at the pot luck; the present is the printed directions on how to make it) It can be difficult to approach the topic of budgeting at the holidays, but your friends might be relieved if you do.

3. Find a coupon. My budget-blogger sources, such as Lisa Koivu at Fantabulously Frugal, and Susan Kessler, The Frugal Diva, tell me there's a coupon for virtually anything you want to buy if you look online before shopping. Type in "Xbox and coupon" in a Google search, for example, and somewhere in the top 10 hits, you're going to find a nice little discount offer, whether for the whole product or for free shipping. Some of the coupons only work if you buy online; others allow you to print it out and bring the discount offer to the store. If there's a particular store that you like, check that too, they advise. Some retailers offer 10% or 20% off on anything in the store.

4. Do your research. If there's something high-end or technological on your gift list, it's particularly important to check the ratings before you buy, said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld, an on-line consumer resource guide. Consumer World's Top 10 Black Friday shopping tips, also suggests you use their site's price-checker and gives guidance to which stores are opening in the wee hours for avid bargain hunters. (Some stores offer Black Friday deals before Black Friday, too, according to ConsumerWorld.)

5. Make sure the deal is legit. The Better Business Bureau warns that some "deals" are too good to be true. If you run into an online offer that seems super cheap, make sure to do a little fraud check on the vendor. If the company's site displays certification seals from the likes of VeriSign, IQNet or TRUSTe, you should be able to click on that symbol and and go directly to the certification company's web site to verify that the vendor is using the certification legitimately, the BBB says. The BBB also offers "reliability reports" of many vendors on its web site.

If a company won't accept credit card payments, but demands wire transfers--a payment type that can't be disputed later--that's also a big, red warning flag that you're dealing with a disreputable company. There's no worse deal than paying for something that doesn't show up, or shows up used, damaged or knocked-off.

6. Get free shipping. If you're ordering online, you should know that somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 retailers have agreed to a free shipping day on Dec. 17, guaranteeing that orders will get to you by Christmas if you order that day too. To find coupons for free shipping with even more merchants, go to FreeShipping.org.

One last thought, it's easy to get lured into the spend, spend, spend mentality at the holidays, but remember the immortal words of Dr. Seuss' Grinch: "Maybe Christmas...doesn't come from a store."

I will hope that, for all of us, Christmas means quite a bit more.