smart spending

Find frugal -- but not cheap -- gifts

Overspending and the holidays often go hand in hand.

"It's too easy for people to say, 'Oh, I'll just get this one more gift for so and so,'" says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, known as The Money Coach, and author of "Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom."

"By the time January rolls around and the credit card bills start coming in, those same consumers who were punch-drunk with spending now have the equivalent of a hangover," she says. "Except in this case, it's a financial hangover that's going to last a really long time."

But how about promising yourself a frugal holiday instead? While it's common to associate frugal with cheap, experts say there's a big difference between the two.

"Being frugal means being budget-conscious, getting the most for your money without having to sacrifice your taste," says bargain-shopping expert Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com. "Being cheap is buying any old thing, regardless of its quality or suitability."

Kim Danger, founder of Mommysavers.com, has a similar outlook. She says a gift has meaning when there's thought behind it, "not necessarily when it is expensive."

Brad Stroh, co-CEO and founder of Bills.com, says a good general rule is to avoid spending more than you can pay off in a month or two.

"The toys will be broken, one of the cuff links lost and half the perfume used by the time you pay off credit card bills in June," Stroh says. "And the sweet memory of gift-giving will be tainted by bitter interest charges."

Remember that a loved one "isn't going to love you any less because you buy a $30 sweater as opposed to a $300 sweater," says Khalfani-Cox.

"The best antidote to overspending is to figure out why the heck you're celebrating in the first place," she says.

1. Keep an eye on sales

It may seem obvious, but store circulars are a great source for holiday bargains.

"Cross-referencing sales and deals between store circulars is critical," says Eva Yusa, who blogs on ShopLocal.com as Eva the Shopping Diva. ShopLocal.com offers price alert e-mails to help know where to shop.

The holiday spending frenzy really begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, for a reason: Sales seem to be everywhere. In recent years, retailers have also raked in sales on Cyber Monday. This is the Monday following Thanksgiving, when millions of people return to work and use lunch hours (and mornings and afternoons) to shop online.

2. Surf for savings

It's no wonder that people are shopping online -- no crowds, deals found at a click, free shipping. But it's not just about buying. The Internet allows you to comparison shop without having to visit the mall, a great way to save time as you stretch the budget.

There are countless sites that can help you find the best deal, including Buy.com, Overstock.com, PriceGrabber.com, Shopzilla.com and dealnews.com.

MyBargainBuddy.com maintains a list of sites with free shipping policies and coupon codes for more than 500 online stores. Danger also recommends subscribing to e-newsletters at your favorite brands' Web sites. That way, you can take advantage of coupons and discount offers.

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3. Get to know store policies

It pays to shop at stores that match competitors' advertised prices and offer price adjustments.

"If the sale item is marked down within a certain time frame, you might be able to get the better price," Danger says.

Be sure to learn about a store's return policy, in case you find a better deal that you want to take advantage of elsewhere.

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