During the holiday season, everyone wants to play Jolly St. Nick, delivering goodwill -- and thoughtful gifts -- to family and friends. But that can come with a big price tag, along with the pitfall of debt.
Plenty of tools are available to help consumers manage their holiday spending, but some old-fashioned tricks remain at the top of the list, noted Jeanine Skowronski, an analyst at Bankrate.com. This year, Americans are planning to spend $781 on holiday gifts, a hefty increase of 11 percent from last year's $704 in spending, according to Gallup. At the same time, wage growth for most U.S. workers remains stagnant.
Shoppers "need to plan ahead and make a list of the gifts you are looking to buy," Skowronski said. "Comparison shop on prices, and make sure that the items on your list is in your budget. Shop just to get what's on that list" without being tempted by other products once you are in the store, she added.
While that may seem like common sense, it will serve holiday shoppers well to stick to it. Retailers are experts at getting consumers to open their wallets, especially for those last-minute impulse purchases before you hit the check-out line. Stores tap into everything from "color psychology" to bundling products together to get consumers to buy more.
"Don't buy for a deal. Just plan to get what's on your list," Skowronski noted.
Research before you shop. Research will be your friend when it comes to putting together a gift list. The good news is that there are 22 percent more Black Friday deals this year than in 2013, according to research from G/O Digital, a division of Gannett.
Consider tapping sites and services such as BensBargains.com and ShopSavvy, which track bargains and discounts at various retailers. That will allow price-sensitive shoppers to plan the best day and place to pick up an item. For instance, the cheapest deal on a Lego Super Heroes' Batcave set will be found at Target (TGT) on Thanksgiving Day at 6 p.m., when it will sell for $42, instead of $70, according to BensBargains.
ShopSavvy, a mobile shopping app, told CBS MoneyWatch that the most discounted electronic products will be found at Walmart (WMT), which is offering an average price cut of 44.5 percent.
Consider using cash or debit cards. For people already dealing with debt, or for those who are extremely budget-conscious, stick with cash or debit cards, Skowronski advised.
Use a credit card, but pay off your purchases each day. Charging purchases can be a good way of getting rewards such as frequent flier miles, as well as additional benefits such as warranties.
During the holidays, pay off your purchases each day, Skowronski advised. "You don't want to wait to pay it off at the end of the month," she said. "That way you know exactly what you just charged," and the bills won't pile up.
Monitor purchases and statements daily. Log into your accounts daily, or consider downloading smartphone apps from your bank or credit card issuer to check into your balances and charges each day.
Not only will this help you keep on top of spending, but it will also allow you to check for unauthorized spending. Fraudsters tend to come out at the holidays, and it's likely some retailers will be targeted by hackers this season, according to BillGuard, which offers an app that tracks for fraudulent card activity.
Be wary of holiday loans. Some credit unions offer holiday loans to provide their customers with extra spending money. While this may seem like a good idea, Skowronski advises against taking one out. "It's more debt, and you always want less of it, not more of it," she said. "If you don't have the money, do something that's relatively inexpensive" like making cookies for friends or relatives, she added.
Do your research on layaway plans. "Some programs are better than others," Skowronski noted. These plans, which became popular during the tough times of the Depression, have been coming back into retailers to entice recession-strapped consumers to shop. Walmart, for one, brought back layaway in 2011.
Some programs charge service fees or require regular payments on items put in layaway. Make sure to read the fine print before signing up.
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