By Robert Pagliarini, Tribune Media Services
Want to learn how to save money on gifts this Christmas and not feel like a Scrooge? According to this year's National Retail Federation holiday survey, the average American will spend close to $700 this season on gifts, cards, decorations and the like. This is one time when you want to be below average -- way below. In fact, if you are in debt, just say no to gift buying this holiday. There is absolutely NO reason for you to go further into debt buying gifts for others. There are 13.6 million Americans who are still trying to pay off holiday debt from last year. Don't join them by digging yourself into a deeper hole.
If you are going to buy gifts this year, the key to avoiding a holiday season that drains your bank account is to start planning early. Here are the top 10 money saving tips for steering clear of holiday debt and starting the new year in better financial shape:
1. Plan it. Before you shop online or enter the chaos of the shopping mall, take ten minutes at home to create a spending plan that lists who you need to buy for and how much you will spend.
2. Use discounted gift cards. How would you like $100 worth of gifts for $80? You can purchase discounted gift cards for hundreds of online/offline retailers including the Apple Store, Radio Shack, Sears, Home Depot and others. Discounts are usually 5 percent-30 percent off the face value of the card. Check out GiftCardRescue.com and GiftCards.com.
3. Use social media. Before you start shopping, start following your favorite retailers on Twitter and Facebook. Many companies offer discounts exclusively to their Twitter followers and Facebook friends. A quick search of their recent posts may reveal money-saving discount codes.
4. Barter via online chat. When you're shopping online, look for a "chat" or "live help" button. Tell the customer service rep you'd like to shop with them but you want a 15 percent discount. Ask them to check with their manager or you will abandon your shopping cart and click over to their competitor. This won't work all of the time, but when it does it will save you money.
5. Find discount codes. I never buy anything online without trying to find a discount code first. I've literally saved hundreds of dollars, and it doesn't take more than a minute. Simply go to RetailMeNot.com, SecretPrices.com and FreeShipping.org to pull up all of the available discounts for your store. Use the discount code during the checkout process to get free shipping or to save 20 percent or more.
6. Get cash back. If you're going to spend hundreds of dollars this year on gifts, you might as well try to get a few bucks back. I've used ebates.com (affiliate link -- all proceeds will go to charity) for some time and have received several rebate checks.
7. Bring on the envelopes, chuck the credit cards. Leave your credit cards and debit cards at home. Allocate an amount of money for each gift, and put that money in separate envelopes marked with the recipients' names.
8. Give group gifts. When exchanging presents within large groups of people, even "token" gifts can really add up. Try a "white elephant" exchange, a secret Santa strategy or going in with coworkers on a gift for your boss.
9. Make a promise that you won't buy anything for yourself. When you're shopping for gifts, it's easy to be tempted to buy for yourself. Make this season about others, not you -- and remember that the items you want will likely be less expensive during the after-season sales.
10. Avoid the "10 percent off, buy more" phenomenon. Stores often offer great deals when you sign up for their credit cards, but beware the high rate of interest these cards charge and ask yourself if you'll really be saving money in the long run. And don't spend more than you intended just because you're now getting a discount on your purchase.
If you follow these money saving tips, I guarantee you will put more green -- and less red -- into holiday shopping this year.
Robert Pagliarini is a CBS MoneyWatch columnist and the author of "The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth & Purpose" and the national best-seller "The Six Day Financial Makeover." Visit YourOther8Hours.com.
This was printed in the December 4, 2011 - December 17, 2011 Edition