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Why you should start your holiday shopping early

a couple looking at items at a Christmas market
Syda Productions/Adobe Stock
a couple looking at items at a Christmas market
Syda Productions/Adobe Stock
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There are exactly 100 days until Christmas. Have you started your holiday shopping yet?

Bankrate’s recent survey revealed that 11 percent of winter holiday shoppers began making their purchases before the end of August. Another 14 percent planned to start this month and 25 percent in October. In other words, about a quarter of holiday shoppers will get underway by the end of September and about half by the end of October.

While some of this sounds almost comically early, I do think there are benefits. And while these statistics are in line with previous years, consumers’ motivations appear to have changed.

How holiday shopping looks different in 2022

Last year, the supply chain was so mixed up due to the COVID-19 pandemic that starting your holiday shopping early felt like a necessity. Experts warned of empty store shelves and long waits and there was a palpable sense of urgency to the proceedings. It was a seller’s market, too, with substantial demand and too little supply. That gave retailers more pricing power than usual.

This year, almost everything has changed. For starters, the supply chain has improved considerably. Major retailers such as Walmart and Target are complaining that they have too much inventory in certain categories and will need to offer more discounts as a result. That’s great news for consumers, although it’s unwelcome for retailers’ profit margins.

This excess inventory built up in part because items arrived off-cycle—for example, summer clothes that came in too late—and also because some retailers ordered too much, not knowing exactly what would arrive and when. Finally, there’s the fact that demand has dropped.

This has especially applied to physical goods as waning COVID fears have led people to spend more on services such as travel, dining and event tickets. Demand for many goods, such as furniture and electronics, was pulled forward into 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic caused most people to spend more time at home. Now, we’re seeing the other side of that phenomenon.

The elephant in the room these days is inflation, which has been running at its hottest pace since the early 1980s. Our survey found that 40 percent of holiday shoppers are changing their behaviors due to inflation. The most common examples are seeking discounts more aggressively and buying fewer items. It makes sense: Americans are spending so much more on housing, food and gas that there’s less money available for other things.

The pros of starting your holiday shopping early

You may think I’m crazy to be writing about Christmas shopping in mid-September. I’m not saying you need to buy everything right now, but I do think it makes sense to get the ball rolling in the near future.

If nothing else, it’s smart to set some money aside from every paycheck through the end of the year. Only about a third of holiday shoppers told us they have money specifically earmarked for the holidays. I’d like to see that figure go a lot higher. After all, the holidays aren’t a surprise.

Assuming you get paid twice a month, you probably have seven paydays left this year. Setting money aside from each of them will go a long way toward avoiding the dreaded holiday debt hangover in January. That’s especially important right now, since the average credit card APR is 18.10 percent, the highest it has been since 1996.

In addition to setting money aside for the holidays, I also think it’s smart to start sketching out a gift list. Who are you buying for? How much do you want to spend? Engaging in this sort of planning exercise ensures you know what’s coming and gives you time to make adjustments. After seeing this on paper (or a screen), you might decide to trim your list of gift recipients. Or maybe you’re good at crafts or baking and can give a cheaper—yet still thoughtful—homemade gift.

How to be a smart holiday shopper

Use the long lead time to your advantage. Advance planning is a luxury that can help smooth out your cash flow and give you time to comparison shop for the best deals.

I’m a big fan of stacking discounts. This involves combining multiple savings strategies on the same purchase, such as using a rewards credit card, an online shopping portal and a store coupon.

As long as you can pay in full and avoid interest, paying with a credit card is a smart way to earn rewards and access other perks such as purchase protection and extended warranty coverage. Credit cards offer much better fraud protections than debit cards, too.

Finally, don’t forget about redeeming any credit card rewards you’ve already accumulated. Whether it’s for cash back, travel, gift cards or merchandise, there are plenty of ways that rewards points and miles can help offset your holiday expenses. And speaking of gift cards, if you’re among the 47 percent of U.S. adults with unused gift cards lying around, factor those into your holiday planning as well.

The bottom line

Holiday shopping can be a significant expense, but with more than three months remaining until Christmas, you have time on your side. Use it wisely. Make a good gift list and check it twice. Sock some money away, comparison shop for the best deals and take advantage of credit card rewards and gift cards—these represent real money, even if they’re sometimes out of sight, out of mind.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.