Holiday Shopping Tips: 33 Dos and Don'ts From Retail Experts

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the gifts you have to buy, consult these holiday shopping tips.

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The 2019 holiday season is officially upon us, and if you haven't made your shopping list and checked it twice, you better start! If you feel like you had less time than normal to get all your holiday shopping done this year, that's not your imagination. Thanksgiving fell on the 28th in 2019, leaving only 26 days between Turkey Day and Christmas—the smallest number possible. To ensure that you're making the most of your holiday shopping this year, we've gathered some great tips from retail experts to get you making the best shopping choices possible.

Do: Abandon your online shopping cart.

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That's right, we want you to leave that cart full and close the tab. Think of it as playing hard to get with your favorite retailers. "Select the products you want and add them to your cart, but do not immediately pay," says Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot. "Leave those items in the cart and close that site, wait for one to two days, and these online retailers may try to entice you to make a purchase by sending exclusive offers." We don't suggest doing this for extremely popular, trendy, or seasonal items, but on things sold year-round, it doesn't hurt to see what savings might pop up!

Don't: Feel guilty spending more on some people and less on others.

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You probably wouldn't spend the same amount on your boss as you would on your mother or best friend, and that's completely OK. It really is the thought that counts, so hold the guilt! "Some folks on your list might receive $10 to $15 gifts while others may get $50 and up," says savings expert Lauren Greutman with Flipp, a Canadian savings app. "There is no reason to feel guilty about how much you spend on people, or that the amounts need to be equal. Just keep these numbers to yourself—no one needs to know exactly how much you spent."

Do: Go shopping with specific people in mind.

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When it comes to making a holiday shopping list, you should outline everyone (we mean, everyone) you want to buy for this year, and potential gifts and price points for each. Making a list is the only way to ensure you don't forget anyone.

"Make sure the list is thoroughly thought out and includes family, friends, coworkers, and service people in your life such as babysitters, the mailman, and hairdressers," says Greutman. "Even if it is someone you give a small token to, be sure to add them."

Don't: Keep your shopping list in your head.

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The only way to keep to a list is to write it all down or type it all out, no matter how great your memory is. Keeping a list in your head "can lead to disorganized shopping and over/under buying," says Trae Bodge, smart shopping expert at Truetrae.com. Use the Notes app that comes with your phone, or download an app like Evernote.

Do: Compare prices on Google.

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Of course a retailer is going to advertise its own price as an amazing one, but understandably, they're a bit biased. So it's worth doing a Google search to double check that you're getting the best deal possible. "Before making any purchase, google the item to compare prices elsewhere, or install the Invisible Hand browser extension, which will compare prices for you," says Bodge.

Don't: Click on sketchy coupons on social media.

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The internet makes shopping 100 times easier, but also 10 times more complicated. If anything seems too good to be true or a little suspicious, trust your gut and look for some tell-tale signs of counterfeit coupons.

"Fake coupons start circulating on social media, and they can be really clever, down to the retailer's logo," says Kristin McGrath, editor and shopping expert at BlackFriday.com. "Signs you're looking at a fake offer include being asked to take a survey to get the coupon, or routing you toward a third-party website. If either of these things happen, you're probably looking at a phishing scam instead of a savings opportunity."

Do: Take advantage of your wholesale memberships.

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You pay for these memberships to make your life easier and for one-stop shopping, and the holidays are the perfect time to utilize them. "Wholesale clubs, like BJ's, will have amazing deals on giftable items, like slippers and PJ's, but they also have great 'break apart' gifts, like big gift baskets that can be separated into smaller gifts," says Bodge.

Don't: Feel obligated to participate in every Secret Santa or White Elephant.

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Work, school carpool, bible study, book club—the list of activities you're a part of is likely a long one, and we can almost guarantee most of them will come up with some sort of gift exchange around the holidays. You might feel a little uneasy saying no, but reserve the gift-buying for those most important to you, and if you have to, narrow it down to one friend group. "While all of the holiday festivities are fun, it can be hard at times to keep up with the never-ending list of events and people you need to shop for," says Skirboll. "Use your best judgement to make sure you participate in only the amount your wallet can handle."

Do: Browse store ads for gift ideas.

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If you're not sure what to buy, store ads are a great place to look first since you know you're getting some sort of deal, and they are normally separated by category for easy browsing. Whether you do this with paper ads or online, you can plan all your holiday shopping using ads, says Greutman.

Don't: Spend yourself into major debt.

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We know how great it feels to check all your loved ones off your shopping list during the holidays, but it's very easy to get carried away with unnecessary spending. The last way you want to start out a brand-new year is with debt, so it's important to maintain a budget. "Create gift idea categories for those on your list and once you have your budget set aside, pay in cash to avoid high interest rates," says Greutman.

Do: Look for ways to increase your budget.

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That said, if it is worth it to you to spend a bit more money, take on a little more work so you can increase your spending. "There's nothing wrong with picking up an extra shift or staying late a few times to get a little extra cash," says Greutman. "By increasing your income you don't have to take your Christmas cash out of your normal budget."

Don't: Buy clothing for someone new in your life.

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While a sports T-shirt or funny Christmas sweater might seem like a harmless gift, it can be difficult to guess the correct clothing sizes of a new friend. Go with a gift card to their favorite store instead to avoid the potential awkwardness of buying the wrong size. "A gift card may seem like the safest bet for someone you don't want to gamble on a purchase for, but don't mistake it for thoughtless," explains Skirboll. "Some other safe items to gift are everyday items or little luxuries that people don't always buy for themselves, like a new wine opener or household essentials like a blanket."

Do: Give yourself options.

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It's always good to have a Plan B, especially when it comes to kids, as a few of the hottest toys for the year could be sold out by the time you get around to shopping. "Try to put at least three ideas down for each person so you have some options—this will allow you to shop the sales and find the lowest price on a gift you know that person will love," says Greutman.

Don't: Buy an item when in doubt.

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If there's any doubt in your mind the person you're buying for might not totally dig your present, opt for the easy way out. "Consider giving a cool digital gift, like GiftYa, which is essentially spending money for your recipient's favorite place," says Bodge.

Do: Stick to the classics for children you don't know that well.

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Brands you know and love like Lego and Play-Doh are classics for a reason, say the experts at The Toy Insider. Better yet, get a board game the whole family can play!

Don't: Get the hottest toys from a third-party retailer.

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If you can't find the toy your child wants most, it's best to give them an IOU for it rather than risk spending hundreds on resale sites. Many of the most popular toys end up selling out in the lead-up to the holidays, "so if you buy now you're likely to be going through a third party and paying well above the list price," says Rebecca Lehmann, manager at BradsDeals.com. "Inventory will be replenished once the holidays wind down, and we might even see discounts at that point."

Do: Buy holiday décor after Christmas.

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And by that we mean, the day after. Much like how you stock up on candy the day after Halloween or Valentine's Day, Christmas decoration discounts are treated the same. Think ahead to next year and wait to get new string lights or ornaments until after Santa comes. "On December 26, plan to go to Walmart, Target, Michaels, Home Depot, or Lowe's, and pick up all the ornaments, artificial trees, and Christmas lights you can," explains McGrath. "These items can wait in a box until next Christmas—and you'll spend less than half of what those who shopped before Christmas spent."

Don't: Worry about having missed "key" shopping days.

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Post-Turkey Day sales aren't the only ones during the holiday season, so don't panic! Sometimes, you can even save more by waiting to make some big purchases. "Sales and promotions run throughout the holiday season and are, for the most part, similar to the sales during Cyber Monday and Black Friday," explains Julie Gerdes, money-saving expert and SVP of product at Coupons.com. "Plus, a lot of stores like Kohl's and The Gap will give you 'cash bucks' to spend at a later date, so it benefits you to spread out your shopping throughout the season."

Do: Wait to make home-related purchases.

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While it's easy to get sucked into holiday sales of all kinds, avoid those of the home variety until after the New Year. "January is the time for 'white sales' on linens for the bedroom and bath, but also kitchen electronics and appliances," says George Troy, author of The Five Laws of Retail.

Don't: Pay for shipping.

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You should never be paying for shipping these days. You can always find a way around it, especially during the holiday shopping season. "Around the holidays, many sites offer free shipping with no minimum threshold, but if there is one, wait until you can order more items," says Bodge. Don't forget, Free Shipping Day this year is Dec. 14th, so nearly all retailers will offer it then!

Do: Start in the back of the store.

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When you walk into a busy store, continue straight to the back. "If you plan to hit the malls when they first open, start in the back of the store and work your way toward the front, moving in the opposite direction of most other shoppers," says Skirboll.

Don't: Spend money on wrapping paper.

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Save yourself some time and money, and let the pros wrap your gifts. "Some higher-end stores will gift wrap for free, and you should absolutely take advantage of this," says Troy. "Otherwise, having a store website do it for a small fee saves time and effort—and always looks good!" If you do prefer to wrap your own gifts, utilize the after Christmas sales to stock up on wrapping paper for next year.

Do: Install a cash back app.

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More often than not, there's an opportunity for cash back on online purchases through an app—so don't pass up free cash. "When shopping online, you can increase your savings by stacking coupon codes on top of sale prices to get even deeper discounts," said Jon Lal, founder and CEO of BeFrugal. Coupon codes are also a great way to layer the discounts.

Don't: Forget your holiday party hosts.

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If you've ever hosted a party, you know how much work goes into making sure everyone has a great time, so be sure to add any and all holiday party hosts to your shopping list. "Simple things like a candle, a bottle of wine, and even a gift card to their favorite retailer will show gratitude and keep spirits bright," says Skirboll.

Do: Order extra holiday cards.

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Whether you accidentally forget someone (it happens) or you want to send a card to a new friend who comes along late in the year, it's better to be safe than sorry and order extras. "This is a nice gesture for someone new to your life," explains Troy. "You at least recognize the individuals and demonstrate some level of caring without being out of pocket much."

Don't: Fall for register and in-line traps.

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Distract yourself in line if you just can't seem to resist all those travel-sized items and candies! Those displays in the lines are meant to trick you into realizing your forgot something small, but they end up actually being expensive, says Gerdes. "Think more practical items like skin care products or makeup that are small enough for stockings but easy to find coupons for."

Do: Create an email account just for promotions.

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Not only will having a shopping-only email account keep your primary email spam-free, but it's a great way to help organize sales you plan on partaking in. "If you visit a retailer's site and get on its email list, you'll typically receive a first-time subscriber discount, such as 15 percent off or $25 off a $100 purchase," says Kendal Perez, former savings expert with Coupon Sherpa. Sign up to receive these notifications using a separate email account created just for promotional messages so it's easier for you to keep track of these offers, she says.

Don't: Click unfollow.

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We know the ads on social media can be overwhelming all year, let alone during the holidays, but some of them have hidden discount codes written in their captions or on their stories that you wouldn't have seen if you weren't following. "Follow your favorite retailers on social media, as they will post about special sales and exclusive offers for their followers," says Skirboll.

Do: Think ahead.

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To truly benefit from the sales this time of year, you should really make two lists: one for the holidays, and one for things you will need to buy in the few months after. "Take advantage of holiday sales for upcoming birthdays and even Valentine's Day," says Troy. The sales might be better this time of year.

Don't: Be afraid to buy the same gifts for multiple people.

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Not only is this cost-effective and time-saving, but more than likely, no one will even know you're doubling up. "Once you find a great deal on an item you know will suit just about everyone on your holiday shopping list, don't be afraid to buy it for multiple people on your list," explains Gerdes. "Gifts like candles, gloves, scarves, and electronics are common gifts to stock up, and a lot of stores will have specials when you buy multiples of the same product."

Do: Be smart with package deliveries.

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Unfortunately, during the holiday season, there is a lot of theft from packages left in apartment lobbies and on front porches. If you live in an apartment building, you might be better off having packages sent to a lock box during the holidays to ensure they don't get stolen, says Troy. Better safe than sorry!

Don't: Forget about price matching.

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Most stores will honor price matching, whether an item is cheaper on their own website versus in-store or you found a lower price from another company entirely. "While this is not always a possibility during the holidays, if a retailer advertises this beforehand, ask for it!" says Troy. Major retailers like Bed, Bath, & Beyond and Target always offer this.

Do: Have fun while shopping.

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Don't forget this is a fun and festive time of year—shopping shouldn't be stressful! Break up shopping with a happy hour with friends or bring a shopping buddy to keep you entertained and in the holiday spirit longer, says Gerdes.

Jennifer Bennour
Jennifer Bennour is a freelance writer covering fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Read more
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