12 Smart Holiday Shopping Strategies
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12 Smart Holiday Shopping Strategies

Instead of letting the holidays sneak up on you and then freak you out for the rest of the season, try a different approach this year. We've got 12 strategies to make gift shopping simpler, cheaper, and a lot more fun.

We know, we know. You're still in pumpkin mode and haven't given the first thought to your holiday gift list. But don't be fooled. The season of stress is fast approaching and once Thanksgiving is over, holiday gift shopping is all too often a frantic race to the finish.

No worries: We're going to help you rediscover the fun in this often-exhausting task. Fortunately, all it takes to save time and money on Christmas shopping is a little planning and creative thinking. Follow these expert suggestions and treat yourself to a holiday season that truly is full of comfort and joy.

1. Start now

Cleaning and organizing expert Marla Cilley of FlyLady.net has a terrific idea for limiting the shopping chaos: Pretend you're going on vacation the first week of December and finish your gift buying before Thanksgiving. Just imagine: You'll have nearly a full month to enjoy the season without once having to fight for a parking spot at the mall.

2. Get over "Perfect Gift Syndrome" for good

Every present you give doesn't have to rock the recipient's world. Besides, your pursuit of Gift Charming often leads you into spending more than you should. So consider this statistic: A National Retail Federation survey found that two out of five people returned at least one holiday gift last year. Conclusion? "Relieve some of that pressure by focusing less on perfect and more on fun or useful -- like an iPod charger for the car or a handy kitchen gadget," suggests M. P. Dunleavey, editor-in-chief of DailyWorth.com.

3. Don't reinvent the wheel

If you've found a gift that works (theater tickets for your brother, for example), stick with it, says Leah Ingram, author of Gifts Anytime: How to Find the Perfect Present for Any Occasion. "Friends and family members look forward to these presents every year -- they become part of their holiday tradition -- and it saves you a ton of time and effort."

4. Pick a number

Buy your kids a maximum of three wrapped gifts this year, suggests blogger Tsh Oxenreider of SimpleMom.net. You'll cut costs and avoid buying a bunch of little things they won't care about. If you can't resist stuffing their stockings, stick to items they'll actually use, like socks or favorite candies. And make a deal with your spouse to buy each other only one bigger gift rather than multiple small items.

5. Give experiences instead of more stuff

If your sister-in-law has always wanted to ride a horse or learn to paint, buy her a lesson. Or take your nephew to his first concert. The people on your list will get more of a thrill out of these gifts than that wrong-size shirt they will have to return. In fact, research shows that pleasant experiences lead to fond memories and are much more satisfying in the long run than material possessions. And don't be afraid to use Groupon and other deal coupons as gifts, but wrap them creatively. For example, you could package a coupon for a cooking class with a colorful kitchen tool or pair a spa treatment with a soothing eye mask.

6. Simplify the rules

If your family picks names to buy gifts, agree up front that no one will spend more than, say, $25 per person, suggests Dunleavey. Then come up with an annual "theme" for the gifts: Thrift-store finds, outdoor fun, locally produced goods. Having a narrowly defined category and a set budget will actually make you more creative -- and that makes shopping more fun.

7. Be an online stalker

Need help coming up with creative gift ideas? Scan your friends' and family members' Pinterest boards. "They're probably full of items these folks want to buy or info on their favorite hobbies," says online shopping expert Michelle Madhok, CEO of SheFinds.com. Likewise, check their Facebook profiles or Twitter accounts for hints on favorite music, authors, or special interests and hobbies.

8. Think outside the (gift) box

Instead of exchanging inexpensive (and often useless) gifts with friends, coworkers, and neighbors, go out for a fun evening instead. "I much prefer a live get-together with a friend to a $20 gift," says Holly Wolf, a bank marketing officer from Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. "That way, neither of us wastes time or money on stuff we don't want or won't use and we get to have a blast."

9. Chip in for the teacher

Don't even bother trying to keep up with those annoying overachiever parents by purchasing an elaborate gift for your child's teacher. In many elementary schools, the class mom or dad organizes a group present, so simply donate whatever you can afford and consider it done. More important, have your child write a thoughtful note or personalize a cute card for her teacher. Other ideas? New books or a game for the classroom or a gift card to the teacher's favorite school-supply store.

10. Develop a signature gift

Find a great wine with a cool label, buy a case (at roughly a 10 to 20 percent discount), and give a bottle to every coworker, neighbor, or dinner-party hostess this season. (If you're feeling extra-creative, you can even design your own personalized label and slap it on the bottle.) Buying a present in bulk saves you not only time and money but also the untold stress of trying to find something unique for everyone you have to buy for, says Ingram. If you're a crafter, go assembly line and make something hip and personal, like Scrabble-tile necklaces, for the women on your list. If you're all thumbs, you can order multiples of someone else's fabulous handmade items on Etsy.

11. Wrap it simply

Rather than investing in expensive holiday paper, blogger Rachel Meeks of SmallNotebook.org buys neutral-colored paper or simple brown craft paper she can use year-round. Silver, gold, or blue are all holiday agnostic. Or skip the paper altogether and buy gifts that are already nicely packaged (food or bath soaps, for instance). Add a bow and you're good to go.

12. Be on the lookout year-round

It might be too late to use this strategy for this Christmas (sigh), but go into next year with a plan endorsed by savvy shoppers everywhere: When you see something that's perfect for your mom, sister or whoever, buy it -- especially if it's on sale. Who cares if it's only July? Or make a point of shopping for one or two holiday gifts every month. Designate a shelf for these gifts and keep a running list of what you've stored so you don't forget. This time next year, you'll be unwinding with a glass of wine and gloating as everyone around you scrambles to get everything done by December 25.

Teri Cettina lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. Her gift-giving strategy this year? Each person's present(s) must fit in a single shoebox.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2012.