In our series "Early Holiday Unwrapped," "The Early Show"'s been highlighting great new gifts at prices that keep going down, and down, and down.
However, on the broadcast Friday, Regina Lewis, AOL consumer advisor, shared how to give nice holiday presents -- for nothing.
In what is being billed as the holiday season of the bargain hunter, Lewis said, your holiday budget may be bigger than you think. There are creative ways, she said, to stretch your dollars and unleash some hidden buying power you may not even know you have.
"We're talking about payment options that don't include cash, as well as some gifts or gift cards that are all but free," she said. "It doesn't get much better than that, but the secret is knowing where to look and how to maximize your buying power."
Going Cashless with Credit Card Rewards (USING POINTS & MILES)
A great way to go cashless and get gifts under the tree is to check your credit card reward balances. Points and cash back bonuses can be redeemed for merchandise, as well as gift cards.
American Express Membership Rewards
If you're an AMEX rewards member, you can expect to earn one Membership Rewards point for virtually every dollar you spend with your AMEX card.
When you're ready to redeem your points, you can do so in the AMEX virtual shopping mall, online at MembershipRewards.com. American Express' Membership Rewards offers merchandise ranging from electronics and home appliances, to apparel and gift cards, to experiential gifts like concert and theater tickets. And while there's no exact formula for how far your points will go when redeeming them for merchandise, a good estimate is 1,000 rewards points is equal to about $5.00. However, that math will vary to some degree by item. But generally, a Wii Video Game in the $50.00 range will go for about 10,000 points.
Here's a look at some of the items you can redeem points for:
KitchenAid Artisan Series Mixer with Bonus Food Grinder can be had for 57,900 points.
Flip Video Ultra Camcorder is 23,600 points.
Samsung 12.2 Touch-Screen Digital Camera with Dual LCD goes for 46,600 points.
If you haven't racked up quite that many points, you can pick up "The Beatles: Rock Band" for Nintendo Wii for 11,500 points, or set your sights on smaller, stocking stuffer type items or go after merchandise in the AMEX Membership Rewards Specials area. The specials area contains items that are essentially on sale -- the number of points needed to acquire them has been reduced.
Getting a Points Advance
There's also a way to receive a "points advance" from AMEX, but be careful with this or you could end up owing them money. If you're close to reaching a point total to cash in -- and you spend frequently -- you can get an extra 5,000 points in advance from AMEX. Points Advance allows you to redeem for rewards more quickly by borrowing Membership Rewards points at no extra charge. You must simply accrue enough points in your program account to satisfy this Points Advance within 12 months. If you don't earn the points back, you must pay off the remaining balance at the Purchase Points cost in effect on the date that you received the Points Advance. This is a nice feature of the rewards program, but only go for this option if you know you will spend enough on your card to pay back the points you've borrowed.
Redeeming for Gift Cards
One strategy for making your points go even further is to redeem them for retailer gift cards. For example, it takes only 5,000 points to get a $50.00 gift card for the Gap or L.L. Bean, whereas if you were to redeem the same amount of points for merchandise, you would have roughly $25.00 in buying power. Again, there is no set formula when it comes to redeeming rewards points, but if you play your cards right and spend some time comparison shopping on MembershipRewards.com, you will find out that some deals are better than others.
Discover Cashback Bonus Program
Another credit card rewards program worth cashing in on is the Discover Cashback Bonus program. As the name implies, it's a cash back model, not points. The earnings program is for all Cashback Bonus® products - Discover More card, Discover Open Road card, and the Discover Motiva card and terms are as follows:
• Earn up to one percent Cashback Bonus automatically on all purchases
• Rewards are unlimited and never expire as long as cardmembers use their card
• Five percent to 20 percent Cashback Bonus when shopping at top online retailers through ShopDiscover, Discover's online shopping portal
• Get up to one percent Cashback Bonus on all your other purchases.
• Flexible redemption options - statement credit, direct deposit, merchandise, Discover gift card or a Partner gift card starting at $20
Maximizing Discover CashBack Rewards
The way to really maximize your cash back points is to shop through ShopDiscover, Discover's online shopping portal. There, your purchases will earn a 5 percent to 20 percent Cashback Bonus at top online retailers through the exclusive online shopping site.
Redeeming for Merchandise:
Discover also enables card members to redeem cash back bonuses for merchandise online.
Examples of merchandise available and cash back bonus amount needed to buy:
Wii Resort Bundle = Cashback Bonus amount $360
Apple iPod Touch = Cashback Bonus amount $210
Apple iPod Nano = Cashback Bonus amount $160
Keurig Brewer = Cashback Bonus amount $130
Garmin GPS = Cashback Bonus amount $200
Kodak EasyShare Digital Frame = Cashback Bonus amount $100
Sony Portable DVD Player = Cashback Bonus amount $200
iLive Docking Station = Cashback Bonus amount $80
Redeeming CashBack for Gift Cards can get You More
Discover card members can increase, even double, rewards when redeemed for "gift cards" from an exclusive network of over 100 top retailers including: Brookstone, Bloomingdales, Foot Locker, FAO Schwarz, Macys, Sears and Sephora. (You do need an account to browse the Discover online mall.)
Just Give me the Cash
Another option for those who want the cold cash is to redeem your Cashback Bonus for cash in the form of a direct deposit to your bank account or a credit to your Discover Card account starting at $50, and in $50 increments.
Tapping into Unused Gift Cards/ Re-selling
If you have yet to redeem unused gift cards from last holiday season, you're not alone - one of four gift-card recipients have yet to redeem a card they received in 2008, according to Consumer Reports. We're not suggesting you re-gift the old gift cards (that's your call), but what you can do is swap them for cash online on sites like GiftCards.com. Expect to get back between 60 to 70 percent of the gift card's value.
Old Gadgets = New Buying Power
Electronics will be hot gifts this holiday season - that's no surprise, but you may be able to cash in by recycling some of the old gadgets you are replacing. As part of their new trade-in and recycling program, Sears is offering gift cards for your old electronics - think MP3 players, digital cameras, cell phones -- even old video games and DVDs.
Log onto Sears.Gazelle.com, where you'll be prompted to enter brand and model information, indicate whether the device works or is damaged, and answer questions about condition and the presence of various accessories. Then, click 'calculate,' and up pops the trade-in value. EXAMPLE: A used - 3-year-old Cannon digital camera in "good" condition is worth $61.00. In "fair" condition, it's worth $53.00. If you're satisfied with the offer, the company will provide free shipping and packaging to return the equipment; and you'll receive your Sears gift card in a week or so. As a special holiday promotion, Sears says participants will receive a fvie percent bonus over the actual trade-in value through Dec. 31. Customers can redeem Sears gift cards online or in store.
Best Buy is also offering gift cards for used electronics. They have an online estimator at Best Buy Trade In.com so you can see how much your stuff is worth. You can then print a prepaid shipping label from the Best Buy Web site. You can also make trade-ins at Best Buy stores for select items like laptops and iPods, providing you originally purchased the items at Best Buy. There are also in-store kiosks where you can trade in previously-viewed movies.