I like Christmas, but I hate Christmas shopping. It's Dante's fourth circle of hell with no parking. You have to beat Santas off with a stick. The closer you get to Christmas, the more retailers begin clamouring for your dollars. Normally I'm an organisational freak and get it all done by August, but this year I've left it all to the last minute, and that makes me an easy mark for retailers. I might as well walk into Kmart and hand the manager my life savings. Retailers make a lot of money over the Christmas and New Year period, and shoppers need to be extra vigilant. If you still need to buy a few items, be aware that it's open season on your wallet.
In a perfect world, we'd all start saving for our Christmas shopping on January 1, but in reality, Christmas is like eating a balanced diet. We forget about it until our left arm tingles and we get severe chest pain. Consider putting some savings aside throughout the year for the extra spending that comes with the festive season. It will give you more financial control and save you from resorting to credit. Consider a Christmas Club account at your bank, or set up a direct debit from your normal bank account into another account each month so that you can accumulate some savings. A little bit often is the key with any saving.
Try lay-by instead of credit
If you must resort to credit cards to cope with Christmas, remember you're spending money you don't have, and ultimately you'll have to pay more for each dollar owed than that dollar is worth. Try not to go into the New Year paralysed by debt, because eventually, it's got to be repaid. Even with two weeks to Christmas, lay-by is still an option. It reserves an item at its current price, and gives you weeks to pay it off. While lay-by departments are insane in the lead up to Christmas, if you go early in the morning, or during Christmas Trading hours (later on weeknights, for instance) you'll miss the worst of the crowds. The downside is you'll be able to hear the background Christmas carols without the noise of the other shoppers.
If Christmas has snuck up on you financially, then you're going to have to be very careful with your dollars. Set a price limit for each person you have to buy for, and then try to remain under that limit. If you're not limited to particular items (like a Nintendo Wii for the kids) then flexibility is your friend. The more items you can choose from, the more chances of getting a bargain. If money is very tight, try buying presents that people can share. I often buy gifts that will bring more pleasure for people if I spend a little more but give it as a joint present.
If you're buying gifts for people you won't see until after Christmas, consider waiting until the pressure of Christmas is passed and hunting for bargains in the post Christmas sales. Retailers stock up on things before Christmas, but then have to get rid of them afterwards, often at lower prices. Think about it. If they have to wait until next Christmas to sell something, chances are it's in their best interests to get it out of the store before stocktaking. That's when prices go down. Armed with that information, you can get some great gifts at reasonable prices.
Give yourself as much time as possible. Even with two weeks until Christmas, that's ten business days when the stores are open, not counting weekends and extended trading hours. Even half an hour after work browsing will mean you've got more time to compare prices and get ideas. The more time you can find, the less pressure you'll have to find the right item at the right price.
Know your shopping behaviour. If you're aware of the techniques retailers use to lure you in, you'll be able to resist temptation. I love to shop. It's a combination of the thrill of the hunt, and the excitement of getting new stuff. Our hunter gatherer instincts are still there, and there are a myriad of retailers to exploit them. I have taken the time to examine my shopping behaviours. I know how I shop. I know how retailers are likely to exploit my impulse to buy. Knowing this means that I am unlikely to be tempted by bargains that aren't really worthy of the name.
Shop smarter and save your dough
The first rule of shopping, as far as I'm concerned, is to have a general idea of what you want. When shopping for gifts, I try to narrow down what categories of gifts would be appropriate for which recipient. For instance, one relative loves to cook and entertain, so browsing the homewares department is a good place to start.
I always look for things that are 'clearance' items. This means that they have been dramatically reduced, often by up to sixty or seventy percent, from their original price. There is nothing wrong with these items. It isn't like you're giving anyone Barry Crocker's Greatest Hits album for Christmas. They have simply been in the store a little longer and have been marked down to get them out of the store. I find that the kitchen goods and manchester departments are hotspots for this kind of markdown, and it's my trick to getting the quality presents my family deserves at the price I can afford. I've been out there, and at least in my town, there are still clearance bargains to be had. Look at the lower shelves and in less exposed areas of the store, and you could walk away with a bargain.
Cash is king
Buying a big item? Offer cash and ask for a discount. It only has to work once to save you money. If you're splashing out for that inflatable pool, it's worth a try. Smaller retailers especially might appreciate it. If you don't get a discount, ask if they can throw another item in for free. What good is a pool without pool toys? Retailers are in the business of selling stuff. The more stuff they sell, the less profit they need to make on each item for it to be worth their while.
Lastly, be nice to the sales assistant. I have worked as a checkout chick in the past, and I can guarantee you, there is no way I'm asking the manager for any special discounts if you get abusive. Sales staff like to be treated with respect, and will go out of their way to help you if you treat them like a human being, so be friendly and don't argue. It could save you a tidy sum on your Christmas shopping.