frugal

6 mistakes to avoid while holiday gift shopping

Mistakes to avoid when shopping for gifts
Mistakes to avoid when shopping for gifts

Everyone has secrets during the holidays, from the best places in the house to hide the presents to how to get the best parking spot at the mall.

So how about a few tips to help you save time, money and stress when you shop?

Money, shopping and credit experts share six of the common mistakes consumers make when they shop for the holidays -- with their best tips for avoiding those pitfalls this year.

Blunder No. 1: Shopping without planning
Blunder No. 1: Shopping without planning

"The No. 1 mistake that people make is not planning," says Stephanie Nelson, author of "The Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom" and founder of CouponMom.com. Even if you're going out at the last minute, "you can sit down and plan before you go out."

Without a shopping plan, you are in danger of overpaying and overbuying, she says. You might buy too much, or you and your spouse might both buy items for Aunt Mabel when you intended to give her one gift.

And, especially if you're shopping at the last minute with no plan, "Price goes out the window," she says. "You're just happy you can get it."

A little planning ahead of time -- no matter where you are in the season -- "will save money," says Nelson.

Blunder No. 2: Skipping coupons
Blunder No. 2: Skipping coupons

Most shoppers associate coupons with the grocery store or maybe the big-box store down the street. But all kinds of retailers use them, and they can save you a chunk of money at the holidays.

"When it comes to retail shopping, there are a few places to look for coupons that don't take much time," Nelson says.

Designate a spot for those packs and coupon fliers you get in the mail, says Nelson, who uses a shoebox in her kitchen. "So when I decide to go to the mall, everything's right there."

Before heading to the mall, shopping center or outlet plaza, visit its website, she recommends. "Believe it or not, a lot of malls have coupons and promotions on the mall's website."

Shopping online? Before you click the "buy" button, open a second screen, and search the retailer's name with the word "coupon."

Blunder No. 3: Not comparing prices
Blunder No. 3: Not comparing prices

Want the best price on an item? These days, a variety of bots and apps will do the heavy lifting for you.

Services such as Amazon's Price Alert will take the make and model of your item and notify you of any price changes, Nelson says. Many stores offer to match a competitor's price if you can present a flier or printed page showing the lower price, she says.

Another way to save: price-guarantee programs. If you buy an item and the price drops within a specific time (often limited periods such as 10 days, two weeks or one month), you can show your receipt and recoup the difference, Nelson says.

Often these policies are not widely publicized, Nelson says. Your best source is the store's website.

Shopping online? Before you buy, use sites such as NexTag.com, MegaShopBot.com and Google.com/shopping to compare prices, says Mary Hunt, founder of DebtProofLiving.com and author of "7 Money Rules for Life."

Also, FreeShipping.com "keeps track of which sites are offering free shipping on which days," Hunt says.

Blunder No. 4: Not taking ads to stores
Blunder No. 4: Not taking ads to stores

Is your favorite store advertising a sale on an item on your holiday list? Cut out that ad, and look for two things in the fine print: the dates of the sale and the items that are not included, says Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation.

Too many times, shoppers remember the ad but not the store -- and wind up in the wrong place, he says. Or they get to the register and don't realize that while most of the department is discounted, a few key items are not included.

But clipping the ad, you'll have a physical reminder of when to go and what to focus on, he says. And if there are any related coupons, you'll have those handy, too.

Blunder No. 5: Buying incompatible tech pieces
Blunder No. 5: Buying incompatible tech pieces

A few years ago, all you had to do to make sure a tech gift worked was include the right batteries. Not anymore.

Not every app is compatible with every kind of tablet or smartphone, says Augie Grant, professor at the University of South Carolina and editor of "Communication Technology Update and Fundamentals." Even some gift cards for music or movies are not totally generic, he adds.

So before you buy an accessory, DVD or gift certificate to an app store, you need to know a little about the machine on which the recipient will be using it, he advises.

Buying someone a movie? "Blu-ray discs are common, but not everyone has a Blu-ray player," Grant says. So, "Unless (the) person has a Blu-ray player, it won't do them any good."

Likewise, accessories that work with one brand of smartphone won't necessarily work with other brands -- or even earlier versions of the same brand, Grant says.

Blunder No. 6: Opening lines of credit
Blunder No. 6: Opening lines of credit

"If you're worried about your (credit) score, skip those on-the-spot credit offers," says Anthony Sprauve, spokesman for myFico.com, a division of credit scoring company FICO.

"That 10 (percent) to 15 percent (discount for opening a new card) is canceled out by the 18 (percent) to 20 percent APR if you carry a balance," Sprauve says. "Every time you apply for credit, your score takes a small hit that will stay with you for a year. You're really not saving money."

And if you conclude that those extra lines are necessary to finance the holidays?

"That's a sign that you need not to just rein in the shopping, but to rein in this gathering of credit," says Todd Mark, vice president of education for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas.

Not only can it "be very harmful to your credit and your score," says Mark, but it's a sign you're "stretched beyond your means and may be stretching yourself even further."

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