The average American spends nearly $700 on holiday gifts. Shop smart with our money advice and save big… When it comes to buying presents for her loved ones, Asia Franks of New York City thinks of greeting cards: “I love buying them, writing a thoughtful message, then sending them!” For Jenifer Moore of Cincinnati, the thought process combines goodwill with practicality: “I want to get my family something special that won’t have me facing debt in 2011.” Moore’s strategy is right on track, according to our experts. “Where we get ourselves into trouble with holiday spending is that we run out to the stores and buy the first thing we see,” says Stephanie Rauterkus, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and blogger at 365daysonabudget.blogspot.com. A good rule of thumb is budget first, then find a deal that fits. Yes, you can express your gratitude without busting your budget. Follow these tips both online and in stores for a very merry debt-free season. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $800 CREATE A HOME THEATER EXPERIENCE: With big-screen HDTVs priced under $700 and all-in-one DVD surround sound systems costing less than $300, you can outfit any room. Circuitcity.com offers low prices, promo deals and 24/7 customer service. PLAN A 2011 RETREAT: It’s not too early to gift yourself a getaway. For an all-inclusive, price-friendly vacation to Rome or Paris, go to airfrance.com. Couples should check out bookit.com, which has amazing travel deals to the Caribbean for less than $500. For last-minute offers, go directly to the resort or airline of choice. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $700 BUY NEW-USED PRODUCTS: Secondhand doesn’t have to mean lesser value. Gamestop.com, for example, offers a refurbished Wii system for $129, a $70 savings. Before you commit, check the return policy and the extended warranty. QUALIFY FOR STUDENT PRICING: Apple offers special education pricing to students and faculty, so stock up on the latest iPad, iPhone, iPod or Mac computer. In addition, college students who join amazon.com’s membership program can receive e-mail alerts for exclusive discounts and promotions. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $600 DARE TO COMPARE: Comparison-shopping sites such as bizrate.com, shopzilla.com and shopping.com help consumers find the right product at the best price. REVISIT YOUR BLACK FRIDAY STRATEGY: “Instead of braving Black Friday [November 26] crowds, shop online, says Laura Conrad, president of pricegrabber.com. “Many retailers offer the same pricing online as in stores.” And don’t forget about Cyber Monday (November 29), when online retailers offer even more sales on electronics. For daily deals, go to blackfriday.net and cybermondaycentral.com. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $500 GRAB A COUPON: Find fantastic deals for any and every store and brand that you shop at savings.com. Before you start browsing, do a quick search on the site for deals and coupon codes. It takes less than a minute and can help you save a lot of money. Check out the “Deal of the Week” for the best buys. LAY IT AWAY: This old-school tactic gives you a chance to pay for items over time. It’s also an alternative to using your credit card (see “Tanisha’s Tips” in this issue for more ways to avoid a credit crunch). Kmart, Burlington Coat Factory and Sears offer layaway plans. Just be clear about scheduled payments, late fees, exchange policies and refunds. For information, visit layawayplans.net. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $400 SET A PRICE ALERT: There’s no need to pay more than $200 for a Blu-ray player/DVD. Set a price alert at pricegrabber.com. When big-ticket items like laptops or TVs drop to your desired price, an e-mail alert is sent. SIGN UP FOR SAVINGS: Register to access the latest news and special offers from manufacturers like Samsung and Sony as well as department stores such as Target and Best Buy. “You can score some great deals,” says finance expert Rauterkus. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $300 GIVE A DAY OFF TO SOMEONE SPECIAL: Maybe your best friend, sister or mom could enjoy a day of luxuriating. Red Door Spas gift certificates and gift cards are available starting at $25, and can be redeemed at any one of 31 nationwide locations (reddoorspas.com). Look for his and her “under $100” discounts for upcoming holiday specials. DOWNLOAD DISCOUNT CODES: A number of sites, including couponalbum.com, coupons.com and retailmenot.com, offer coupons and promotional codes for eBay, overstock.com and other online buying sites as well as in-store shopping. “Matching up coupons with store sales and other discounts will really help you stretch those dollars,” says Rauterkus. How will you know? Get the Sunday paper, then visit the sites. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $200 FOLLOW YOUR FAVORITES ON TWITTER: Walmart, Old Navy, Toys “R” Us and other stores will be tweeting out some of the best deals of the holiday season to their followers. “Not only will you know about the best deals online but you will also have the chance to win some of the hottest gift prizes of the season,” says pricegrabber.com’s Conrad. DO FRUIT: Put a unique spin on the traditional fruit basket with Edible Arrangements. For $40 and up you can order a holiday bouquet of fresh and chocolate-dipped fruit from any one of 987 stores or online (ediblearrangements.com). SHOP AFTER CHRISTMAS: Expect some great bargains after Christmas on overstocked merchandise, particularly clothing. Major retailers post sales to clear out leftover inventory following the holiday. IF YOU ONLY HAVE $100 SHOP DOLLAR STORES: Party hostesses really can’t beat dollar store prices. Buy decorations, party favors, table settings, paper products, gift wrap, gift bags and Christmas cards at rock-bottom prices. USE YOUR CREATIVITY: Bundle up small items like bath soaps, salts and candles to make baskets. Rauterkus says don’t be ashamed to regift or include department store samples such as cosmetics. People won’t mind if it’s a brand they like. GIVE GIFT CARDS: Stay on budget by giving a department store gift card or branded gift card, such as a Visa gift card. Add as little as $10 or as much as $1,000. See your local bank or retailer to purchase a card. SIGN UP FOR NETFLIX: Buy a gift subscription for free movies and television episodes for one month or up to a year (plans start at $8.95 per month).
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