HThe holiday shopping season officially kicks off this week with the Black Friday sale on November 25. The sale event, typically the busiest shopping day of the year, has evolved into a multi-day promotion for many retailers, stretching into Cyber Monday, aimed at encouraging e-commerce-driven buying – and sometimes even 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 they become buyers’ remorse when they get swept up in the deal hunt.
Read more: Why we buy things we don’t need
TIME spoke to shopping and personal finance experts about how to make sure you’re spending wisely. They shared their advice for getting the best deals without stress.
Be realistic and budget
Much of the stress around the holidays stems from the desire to live up to expectations for gift-giving for those you care about. But especially if you have kids, it’s important to make sure you don’t overexert yourself.
“It’s really important for people to call back and focus on what they can personally afford this year, and stay within that area,” said Trae Bodge, Smart Shopping Expert at truetrade.com.
“Give yourself grace,” says Tori Dunlap, entrepreneur and person behind the @herfirst100k account on TikTok. Budgeting doesn’t have to be a strict constraint, but rather a guardrail that keeps you shopping with purpose. “It’s the consent form. You have to spend money without feeling guilty,” says Dunlap.
Holiday budgeting can simply be a list of who you need gifts for, possible gift ideas, and the amount you want to spend on the gift. If you see that you don’t have the income to buy a gift for everyone in the family, be honest with family and friends about how things are financially, or suggest alternatives such as a Secret Santa or a White Elephant, says Bodge.
To gauge how much they expect to spend this year, Dunlap suggests that clients look at last year’s budget and how they handled it. She says thinking about whether you’ve brought credit card debt with you this year and thinking about how your financial situation has changed can help determine how much you expect to spend this holiday season.
Several major retailers, such as Target, Walmart, and Best Buy, offer their Black Friday deals online ahead of Thanksgiving. If you’re worried about not being able to purchase items due to increased online traffic and possible website crashes, you should check out the Black Friday deals. For example, Target offers daily and weekly deals, some of which are available exclusively online. Daily deals will take place through Dec. 24 while supplies last, the retailer said in a statement.
Shoppers can also take advantage of picking up select items and locations at stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s and JCPenney. Same-day or next-day delivery is available at certain department stores.
While in-person shopping is useful for products that need to be seen firsthand, 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 price, making it easier to see if an item’s price has actually dropped over the Black Friday weekend.
The Paypal Honey extension is also available for mobile browsers such as 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 buy. “You can actually enter the product name and we’ll do the pricing across multiple merchants…instead of bouncing from site to site.”
If you choose to order online, Bodge recommends placing your order before December 14, as that’s the last official day retailers can guarantee your order will arrive before the holiday season.
Make store policies work for you
Holiday return policies vary from store to store, but most retailers will allow customers through January to return items purchased during this time of year. For example, Best Buy allows customers to return gifts purchased between October 24 and December 31 through January 14, while Amazon extends returns until January 31.
It’s also worth considering joining a retailer’s free loyalty program, which gives access to exclusive discounts in advance.
Stores also offer holiday price match guarantees, which lower the price of an item if you find an identical item for less at a retail competitor. This can be done at the time of purchase, or often after you purchase the product. Usually you will need to provide proof of purchase for this. Stores like Target also match Target.com prices with in-store purchases.
While the sale is already available and will last through the holiday season, Bodge says Black Friday shoppers can find the best deals on small home appliances, such as security cameras and robot vacuum cleaners. Bargains for electronics (laptops, tablets, etc.) are strong from Black Friday to Cyber Monday.
Take a beat – and watch out for predatory behavior
Retailers can often create a sense of urgency with doorbuster deals or ads that say supply is limited. This can lead shoppers to panic buying and overspending on things they don’t need, Bodge tells TIME.
“You can give yourself a budget [also] be really helpful,” says Bodge. “If you don’t have yourself on your list and set a budget for yourself, you can fall into it [a trap] of a [gift] one for them, one for me, causing many people to go over budget.”
Dunlap also asks people to think strategically about how they spend their money. Responsible users should use their credit card as the primary means of purchasing items to maximize points, Air Miles and other potential cashback offers for select stores.
However, shoppers should not rely on credit cards or online offers such as buy now, pay later if they are unable to pay back what they have borrowed within a reasonable time to avoid accruing interest.
Dunlap also advises against purchasing store credit cards unless customers are actually buying or spending a lot of money from those retailers.
“Keep in mind that many of these stores, when they present their credit card to you, will refer to them as something like a rewards card. This is not a rewards card,” says Dunlap. “This is a credit card and store rewards cards usually have higher interest rates. So if you are a person who has not been able to pay the credit cards on time and in full, a rewards card will hurt you.
Do your research and look beyond the major retailers
Customers should also look at their existing accounts to make sure they’re getting the best deals. “Make sure you’re aware of the offers your credit cards may have,” Bodge tells TIME.
It’s also worth looking at perks and offers retailers can offer to incentivize customers to choose them over their competitors, even if items are priced the same, such as an extra gift card with your purchase, says Bodge.
This 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 anywhere else. Small Business Saturday, a marketing initiative to encourage buyers to support these sellers, falls on November 26 this year. “You have more purchasing power during holidays than at any other time of the year and small businesses, women-owned businesses…[these] people need those dollars the most, so you can vote with your dollars any day of the year, but especially during the holidays,” Dunlap tells TIME.
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