Tips and tricks for saving money on holiday shopping

The holiday season means holiday shopping. Make sure your gifts don't break your budget with these tips and tricks.

Lionel Cironneau/AP/File
Prince Albert II of Monaco with his wife Princess Charlene and a man dressed in a Santa Claus costume (Dec. 16, 2015). Save money on holiday shopping by checking online for deals and consulting your budget before spending.

Holiday shopping doesn’t have to be a financial burden if you plan accordingly and implement effective strategies.

We’ve compiled a list of smart ways to save money on holiday shopping. Some are classic strategies that you can track with pen and paper, while others take advantage of the power of your smartphone. Used together, they can add up to big savings and make your holiday budget stretch a lot further.

Set a budget and make a list

Setting and sticking to a budget can help prevent runaway spending. First, decide how much you’re willing to spend, including on travel, if you’ll be away from home. Once you’ve set your spending limit, make a list of whom you’re buying for, even if the gift is small. Keep that list handy on paper or on your smartphone, and remember that spreadsheet applications are now available for most common smartphones.

Don’t just calculate prices in your head as you shop. Your smartphone probably has a calculator, and it’s certainly going to perform math more accurately. Apps such as Discount Calculator (iOSAndroid) can figure out your sale price as well as the sales tax to help you avoid sticker shock at checkout.

Research online before buying

Reputable online reviews are a great way to evaluate whether high-end products are worth the cost, or if lower-priced ones offer the same or better features. Amazon has customer reviews of pretty much any item on the market. CNET has reviews for tech gear, while Consumer Reports reviews a broad range of products, although there is a subscription fee.

Keep in mind that last year’s products or lower-priced ones might provide the same value as the new model. A lower-priced FitBit trackerGoPro camera or iPad tablet, for instance, might have the features you’re looking for.

Use shopping apps

If you’re shopping in a store with your smartphone handy, apps such as RedLaser (iOSAndroid) and ShopSavvy (iOSAndroid) allow you to scan a product’s barcode or QR code to find whether other stores or sites have better deals on the item. And keep an eye on daily deals to find sales that last only one day or for a short period of time.

Shop with the right credit card

Using your credit card strategically as you make your holiday purchases can pay off for you in the long run. U.S. shoppers will leave $152 million in credit card rewards unused this holiday season; you can claim financial rewards by using the right credit cards.

cash-back credit card can provide 1% or 2% cash back on all purchases, and even more cash back on certain types of purchases such as gas or groceries. A rewards credit card is similar, but can provide even larger rewards from certain vendors or on certain products. And if you carry a balance, you can dramatically lower the interest rates on your holiday shopping with a 0% APR credit card or a low interest credit card.

Purchase online and look for free shipping

Shopping online has automatic advantages in saving travel time and gas money. The drawback can be shipping costs, particularly on large items. However, there’s no downside when you shop online at stores with free shipping. Target is offering free shipping until Dec. 25 (excluding oversize items), while Best Buy is offering free shipping on everything through Jan. 2. Hundreds of additional stores will be participating in Free Shipping Day on Dec. 18, offering free shipping on all items and delivery by Christmas Eve.

Seek out price-matching

Many retailers will offer a price-matching guarantee, that is, they will match the price of an item if a competitor is offering that same item at a lower price. Stores such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and others offer price matching. The price-matching policies are often quite detailed and specific, requiring the lower-priced product to have the identical brand, color and model number.

Suggest group gifts and secret Santas

Within large groups or families, two or more people can always pool their resources and give a gift jointly, a great way to save money on particularly expensive gifts. Another way to save money with large groups is to employ the secret Santa gift exchange method, in which everyone buys only one gift for whomever they were randomly assigned. Everyone still gets a gift and saves time and money.

Entertain yourself for free

Other aspects of the holidays can also be expensive. Try to find free seasonal entertainment and activities, such as tree lighting ceremonies or holiday parades. Walking around a neighborhood to admire its light displays is a festive holiday activity and rarely disappoints.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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