Holiday shopping season will officially begin this week with the Black Friday sales on Nov. 25. Typically the busiest shopping day of the year, the sale event has extended to become a multiple-day promotion for many retailers, extending into Cyber Monday—aimed at encouraging e-commerce driven purchases—and sometimes beyond.
Navigating these sales for bargains and holiday gifts can be stressful, with several competing deals and offers to sort through. Meanwhile, some shoppers find that they end up with buyers’ remorse when they get swept up in the hunt for deals.
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TIME spoke to shopping and personal finance experts about how to ensure that you spend wisely. They shared their advice for getting the best deals without the stress.
Be realistic and budget Much of the stress around the holidays comes from the desire to match gift-giving expectations for those you care about. But especially if you have children, it’s important to ensure that you don’t overextend yourself.
“It’s really important for people to dial it back and focus on what it is that you can personally afford this year, and stay within that realm,” says Trae Bodge, Smart Shopping Expert at truetrade.com.
“Give yourself grace,” says Tori Dunlap, entrepreneur and person behind the account @herfirst100k on TikTok. Budgeting does not have to be a strict restriction, but rather a guardrail that will make sure you are shopping with purpose. “It’s the permission slip, you need to spend money without feeling guilty,” Dunlap says.
Budgeting during the holiday season can simply be a list of who you need presents for, potential gift ideas and the amount you’d like to spend on the gift. If you can see you don’t have the income to purchase a gift for everyone in the family, be honest with family and friends on how things stand financially, or suggest alternatives like a Secret Santa or White Elephant, says Bodge.
In order to gauge how much they should expect to spend this year, Dunlap suggests shoppers look at last year’s budget and how they dealt with it. She says that thinking about whether you brought credit card debt into this year with you and considering how your financial situation has changed can help to shape how much you expect to spend in the upcoming holiday season.
Shop smarter Several big retailers, like Target, Walmart and Best Buy, offer their Black Friday deals online ahead of Thanksgiving. If you are worried about not being able to purchase items due to increased online traffic and possible website crashes, you should check out deals before Black Friday. Target, for example, is offering daily and weekly deals, some of which are exclusively available online. Daily deals will occur through Dec. 24 while supplies last, the retailer said in a statement.
Shoppers can also take advantage of curbside pickup on select items and locations at stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s and JCPenney. Same or next-day delivery is also available at certain department stores.
While in-person shopping is useful for products that need to be seen first-hand, online shopping often offers a greater selection of items in terms of size or color, and makes it much easier to save.
Bodge and Dunlap both recommend downloading the Paypal Honey browser extension, which finds coupons and other offers for shoppers. Honey also tracks an item’s historical pricing, making it easier to see if the price of an item actually went down during Black Friday weekend.
The Paypal Honey extension is also available for mobile browsers like Safari, as well as through an app.
Greg Lisiewski, Vice President of PayPal Shopping told TIME that he recommends using the extension if you’re just browsing online, while the app is more useful if you know exactly what you want to purchase. “You can actually put in the product name and we’ll do the pricing at different merchants… instead of having to bounce around from site to site.”
If you do choose to order online, Bodge suggests you place your order by Dec. 14, since that’s the last official day that retailers can guarantee that your order will arrive before the holidays.
Make store policies work for you Holiday return policy varies from store to store, but most retailers allow shoppers to return items purchased during this time of year through January. Best Buy, for instance, is allowing customers to return any gifts purchased between Oct. 24 and Dec. 31 until Jan. 14, while Amazon is extending returns until Jan. 31.
It’s also worthwhile to consider joining a retailer’s free loyalty program, which grants access to exclusive discounts ahead of time.
Stores also offer holiday price match guarantees, which will lower the price of an item if you find an identical item for less at a retail competitor. This can be done at time of purchase, or often after you’ve bought the product—typically you would need to present a proof of purchase for this. Stores like Target also match Target.com prices with in-store purchases.
Although sales are already available and last through the holidays, Bodge says that shoppers can find the best deals for small home appliances, like security cameras and robotic vacuums, on Black Friday. Bargains for electronics (laptops, tablets, etc.) are strong from Black Friday through Cyber Monday.
Take a beat—and watch out for predatory behavior Retailers can often create a sense of urgency with doorbuster deals, or advertisements that say supply is limited. This can encourage shoppers to panic buy and overspend on things they don’t need, Bodge tells TIME.
“Setting a budget for yourself can [also] be really helpful,” Bodge says. “If you don’t have yourself on your list and set a budget for yourself, you might fall into [a trap] of one [gift] for them, one for me, that causes a lot of people to go over budget.”
Dunlap also asks people to think strategically about how they spend their money. Responsible users should use their credit cards as the main way to purchase items to maximize the amount of points, Air Miles and other possible cashback offers for select stores.
Shoppers should not, however, depend on credit cards, or online offers like Buy Now Pay Later if they won’t be able to pay back what they have borrowed within a reasonable amount of time to avoid interest accruing.
Dunlap also advises against acquiring store credit cards, unless shoppers genuinely purchase or spend a lot of money with those retailers.
“Please be aware that a lot of these stores, when presenting their credit card to you, will call them something like a rewards card. This is not a rewards card,” Dunlap says. “This is a credit card and store rewards cards tend to have higher interest rates. So if you are a person who was not able to pay off the credit cards on time and in full, a rewards card is going to hurt you.”
Do your research and look beyond the big retailers Customers should also look to their existing accounts to ensure they are getting the best deals. “Make sure that you’re aware of the offers that your credit cards might have,” Bodge tells TIME.
It’s also worth looking into perks and offers retailers might provide to incentivize customers to choose them over their competitors even if items are priced the same, such as an additional gift card with your purchase, says Bodge.
Now is also a good time to think about supporting smaller retailers while still getting a deal, and maybe even finding something more unique than you’d get elsewhere. Small Business Saturday, a marketing initiative aimed at encouraging shoppers to support these sellers, falls on Nov. 26 this year. “You have more purchasing power during holidays than you do any other time of the year and small businesses, women-owned businesses…[these] people need those dollars most so you can vote with your dollars every day of the year, but especially during the holiday,” Dunlap tells TIME.
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