40 Savvy Tips to Save Money on Christmas Shopping, According to Bargain Shoppers

Christmas shoppers spent an average of $805 in 2015, according to the National Federation Retail Survey. Use these essential money-saving tips so you and your bank account glide smoothly through the holiday season.

Butter up sales associates with your charm

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The nicer you are to store employees, the less you spend. “Nobody realizes that there are hidden discounts in almost every shop you walk into,” says Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World. “All it takes is a smile and a little charm.” Don’t assume there aren’t any discounts in a store just because you don’t see any sale signs. When you walk through the doors, exchange pleasantries with the first salesperson you see, then ask about any discounts for the day. Often, you will save a few bucks or learn to wait and come back for a sale in a few days. (Related: Learn how to be nicer using these helpful tips.)

Know your limits

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Don’t fret about buying your family an overload of presents for Christmas. They will also receive gifts from relatives and friends, so there’s no need to spoil them too much if you’re watching your budget. Jordan Page, author of the Fun Cheap or Free blog, recommends giving your kids two presents: the bigger gift from the parents and a smaller one from Santa. “Parents feel a lot of pressure about Santa gifts,” Page says. “This way it gives the parent more control and the kid is more understanding about what they do and don’t get for Christmas from Santa.”

Embrace online shopping

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Surfing the web for Christmas presents is great for two reasons: You avoid the holiday crowds and it keeps you from grabbing more than you need. “At a brick and mortar store, I find things I never needed that I have to have, but online shopping restricts me,” says Sami Cone, author, blogger, and creator of the Family Money Minute podcast. “When I’m shopping online, I know what I want, I search it, and I buy it.”

Make a gift list

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Create a shopping plan at home so you’re not swayed by store marketing strategies. Play-it-by-ear shoppers never fail to overspend, but thrifty shoppers know how much they are going to spend and what they want to buy before they enter the store. Here are the invisible ways stores trick you into spending more.

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Opt for a layaway plan

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For people with a limited income, layaway plans are much gentler on your pocket book and credit score. You simply grab your item, bring it to the layaway desk, and pay off your purchase in feasible payment chunks. Once it’s all paid off, you can take it home with you! Burlington Coat Factory lets you layaway your purchases all year for a $5 service fee and 20 percent deposit toward your payment. Make sure to plan ahead for this option, otherwise you may not have your gifts in time for Christmas.

Grab a shopping buddy

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Most coupons require you to spend a certain amount of money to get the discount; the kicker is, you miss out on the deal if you didn’t plan on spending that much. If there’s a deal you just can’t turn down, take a friend shopping. You can pool your purchases and both nab the savings.

Skip the mall

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As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Thrift stores and garage sales are hidden treasure troves filled with potential presents that won’t empty your wallet. “This time of year, tons of donations flood into thrift stores, from parents clearing out toy rooms to people doing some good,” Page says.

Download coupon apps

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Technology is every savvy shopper’s savings dream. Twenty-one percent of smartphone owners used their device to Christmas shop in 2015, according to the National Retail Federation Survey. A simple swipe of your finger allows apps like Shopular to show you all the sales in your favorite stores.  RetailMeNot provides coupon and promo codes for both online and in-store shopping.

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Buy experiences

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It’s easy to get caught up in the materialism of the holidays and forget the true meaning of Christmas: making memories. Instead of buying futile trinkets that will just gather dust, spend your shopping money on, say, a vacation or a zoo membership. Groupon is a handy site for snagging discounted rates on spa days, dinner dates, excursions, the theater, and more.  “Our family would rather sacrifice the stuff so we can make memories together,” Cone says.

Don’t forget about price matching

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Skip the crazy Black Friday lines at the mall and hit up the stores in your neighborhood and you might score some deals. Before you make the trek out, call the store and ask about their price matching policies. If they say yes, go to the store and show the cashier a competing store’s sales ad on your phone or in a flyer so they can match their competitor’s sale price. If you can handle the crowds, many big retail stores like Target also tout their price match policies. “There are too many shops and not enough shoppers,” Ellwood says. “Shops need us more than you need them.”

Take your time when shopping online

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If you’re not registered to every online store you shop in, you should be. Registered customers get a tailored shopping experience with product recommendations and insider knowledge on the latest promotions. Then add items to your virtual cart, close the window, and wait. If you’re patient, the retailer will remind you that there are items waiting in your basket. Often, they will send you a 10 to 20 percent off incentive to complete your transaction. Or try messaging an online customer service member and kindly ask if they can give you a discount.

Day-trip to an outlet mall

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If you like designer brands but not their price, plan a trip with some friends and head to the outlets. Some outlet malls let you register for free as a VIP member, which scores you a coupon booklet. You can land even more savings by asking for another different coupon booklet at the outlet’s customer service center. These two options let you compare and contrast which coupon has the better savings. But don’t let the bargains veer you away from your gift list. Some outlet mall items are made specifically for the outlets, which means they were never sold at the higher price, so you’re not saving any money. Try sneaking these fashion upgrades into your wardrobe to make your outfits look expensive.

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Think before you buy

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Give yourself time to think about if a gift is worth purchasing for someone or just an impulse buy. Try counting to three or walking away to clear your mind. “In our family, we don’t buy things the first time we see it,” Cone said. “Sometimes just walking away removes the desire.”

Pace yourself

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A smart shopper thinks about Christmas shopping all year round. In the months leading up to Christmas, gradually shop little by little, which saves you from blowing hundreds of dollars in a single month. Experts recommend shopping for Christmas the week after the holiday ends so you can catch all the clearance items. “It allows you to have a fabulous, generous Christmas and still be able to do other things around the year,” Page says.

Use discounted gift cards to buy presents

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Cardpool and Raise are both online marketplaces where people sell back their unused gift cards for up to 35 percent off. This way, you can add an additional discount to your marked-down store purchase.

Go halvsies on a gift

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Why pay full price for a gift when you can split the cost with a sibling or friend? “This way you’re not spending a lot of money and giving something with a little more meaning and use,” Cone says.

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Create an online shopping browser

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There are two add-ons every frugal shopper needs for their Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox browsers: The Camelizer and Honey. “You can use these to torpedo the price of anything you buy online,” Ellwood says. The Camelizer is made for Amazon and displays an item’s price history and lets you set up a price alert when Amazon sells it at your desired price. When you’re ready to checkout in an online retail store, click on the Honey icon to scour the Internet for every discount code that applies to your purchase. Unfortunately, this add-on is still fairly new, so expect some glitches. Try pinching more pennies with sites like savings.com or do a Google search for discount codes.

Let your kids use their own money

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If your child’s piggy bank is full and they’re old enough to buy their own presents for family and friends, there’s no need for you to cough up the cash for them. It gives you an opportunity to teach them how to save money and think creatively. “Don’t feel obligated to bail your kids out,” Page says.

Don’t rely on Black Friday

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For some shoppers, Black Friday is an annual holiday tradition; for others, it’s five cups of coffee and a raging headache. The Black Friday hype is designed to lure shoppers into the store and buy things they don’t need for the sake of a bargain. And, some of the products are cheap because they were “Black Friday stock,” so you’re not really saving that much because they’d be sold for cheap anyway. “Black Friday is always a little bit of a bait and switch,” Ellwood says. Here are more Black Friday deals that you're better off passing up.

Get crafty

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Get those creative juices flowing! Nothing says “I love you” more than a thoughtful homemade gift from the heart. Bake someone their favorite pie, scrapbook a photo album, or design personalized coupons for quality time. “One Christmas my husband and I were living paycheck to paycheck, so we made our presents,” Page says. “It was one of the most thoughtful Christmases we had.” Help your kids make the perfect present using these fun and simple DIY crafts.

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“Window shop” ahead of time

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Many stores release their Black Friday deals online a week before. If you scope out the prices ahead of time, you can gauge whether the price difference is worth the hassle of dealing with the Black Friday chaos. Make sure to avoid these Black Friday shopping mistakes.

Shop in zen mode

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Play soothing music through your ear buds to mellow out before hitting the sales racks. Your brain’s dopamine levels, or “feel good” juices, may spike at the sight of a sale sign because it’s exciting to buy a nice, new item at a super low price. But this “shopping high” may also have its consequences. if you walk into a store overwhelmed by the numerous sales signs, your dopamine levels kick into overdrive, which may cause you to go on a spending frenzy that you may regret later. “Try to get yourself as calm as possible,” Ellwood says. “That will prevent the dopamine from highjacking your brain.”

Set a Christmas dinner budget

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It’s not all about the presents; a Christmas feast is what truly brings everyone together. But when you’re cooking for a dozen or more, the dollar signs start to multiply. Set a budget for your food just like you would for presents. An app like Favado or websites like Deals to Meals help you track grocery deals and plan your meals around what’s on sale. When you don’t have to pay full price for food, you can afford to buy more for less and freeze it for later in the year, which is an added bonus.

Start a Christmas savings account

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Open up a savings account and deposit a piece of your paycheck each month; whether it’s a dollar a day or $50 a month, a little bit goes a long way. Some banks even have a monetary incentive to open a new account, like Capital One, which gives you $25 if you open a new account with a $250 deposit. Nationwide has a Holiday Savings Account that helps you put aside money during the year and sends you a check in October, so you can start shopping early. “When people think Christmas, they think presents, but you may also have travel, stockings, and dinner. It’s an expensive season and this helps quell that,” Page says.

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Make a buck while you shop

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It’s just as easy to earn cash back as it is to spend it. All you need to know is where to go. The app Paribus automatically tracks your online purchases; if the item goes on sale after you purchase it, the app will automatically reimburse you for the price difference. Ebates gives you cash back for buying an item from more than 2,000 online retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Other apps like Ibotta and Shopmium deposit your rebate money into your PayPal account within a day. Shopkick is a rewards app that gives you points for simply entering a store and even more for when you buy, which eventually turns into cash.

Do a Black Friday dry run

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Hit up the shops you plan to visit a few days before they’re swamped with shoppers. Ask about their Black Friday sales and take pictures of the current items in the store to help you visualize what will be available on Friday. If you turn up Friday morning and there are new items that weren’t there before, they were most likely brought in specifically for Black Friday and never sold at a higher cost. Here are family bonding activities that aren't Black Friday shopping.

Always compare coupons

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Coupon comparisons are just as important as price comparisons. If you have different coupons for the same store, you may get a better deal with one versus the other. Some stores, like Kohl’s, even let you combine coupons.

Don’t be blinded by discounts

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Bargains are for saving money, not spending it. The best discounts are for gifts that are on your list. You’re not saving your wallet by buying more than you planned. Start these habits to become a good money saver.

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Organize a Secret Santa

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Large families with dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, this game is for you! Set a price limit and draw names out of a Santa hat to find out who you’re buying for. Not only does it ease the pressure of choosing tons of presents, but it also saves you a chunk of money if you’re not buying for everyone.

Save your receipts

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Price adjustments are your friend. If a sales item gets marked down lower, return it and buy it back immediately to get the new sale price and ensure you get the best bargain.

Stop being a Scrooge

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Christmas is a time of giving to others, not just yourself. Yet in 2015, more than half of shoppers polled spent an average of $132 on themselves, according to a National Retail Federation Survey. You’ll save time and money by spending less on you and more on loved ones.

Always pay in cash

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Keep your credit cards at home. It’s easy to accumulate credit card debt during the holidays by spending money you don’t have in your bank account. Cash is a tangible reminder of how much you physically have to spend.

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Boost your holiday budget

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Try selling old clothes to a consignment shop, hosting a garage sale, filling out online surveys for $3 each at Pinecone Research, or running errands for strangers through TaskRabbit. You’ll have an extra $50 for Christmas shopping before you know it.

Sign up for free online trials

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For the last-minute shopper, rush delivery fees to ensure gifts arrive in time can be debilitating. Avoid these extra costs by signing up for a free trial of Amazon Prime or ShopRunner. Amazon Prime and ShopRunner members receive free two-day shipping. ShopRunner members also receive exclusive deals on name brand products like Tommy Hilfiger for a one-time membership fee of $79. Plus, hundreds of online stores have designated December 18 as Free Shipping Day.

Learn from bargain hunters

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Start following blogs like The Krazy Coupon Lady and Cash Cow Couple to learn tips about stretching your dollar. The Krazy Coupon Lady teaches future frugal frannies how to become efficient couponers and also provides the latest steals and deals on items from laundry detergent to Back-to-School.

Throw a Christmas potluck

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Instead of shouldering the entire meal yourself, invite your guests to bring a homemade dish for Christmas dinner to cut your own cost and prep time. Create a Google spreadsheet to track what foods each person will bring or assign dishes for each guest to ensure you have a full feast.

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Stack your savings

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The more bargains, the better. Maximize your savings and combine your discounted gift cards, rebate money, and coupons together to save anywhere from 5 to 25 percent off, or possibly more depending on what kinds of deals and discounts you have.

Beware of “goldilocks pricing”

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Retailers like to promote items in threes and the reason is sneaky. If there are three flat-screen TVs displayed at different prices, the shopper will most likely choose the mid-priced option. Shoppers often choose the mid-priced item for two reasons: the cheapest item means low quality and the most expensive item means you risk of paying too much, according to pricing expert and consultant, Mark Stiving's blog post on Upstream Commerce. To avoid this trap, walk to a different department so you can evaluate your price options clearly.

Buy things in fours

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Four is the magic number when it comes to Christmas lists for your immediate family. Only buy four things for each person: something to wear, something needed, something wished for, and something to read. Remember this nifty trick and you’ll never overbuy again!

Exchange “used gifts”

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Why buy new presents when your home is filled with potential ones already? Host a used gift exchange with friends and family. Give someone your favorite book, a China dish you’ve never used, or a candle.  Just make sure it's either thoughtful or only gently used, so you don't look cheap.

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