Where to Find the Cheapest Holiday Gifts

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Lori Bowen of North Augusta does some holiday shopping at the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Augusta, Ga. on Friday, December 10
By Geoff Williams

'Tis the season for shopping and great deals -- unless, of course, you don't have a lot of money. In that case, the holiday displays, brightly colored wrapping paper and catalogs arriving in the mail can be unpleasant reminders of how broke you are.

But even if you're experiencing a cash crunch, you can still complete your gift list. Here are some places to find affordable gifts off the beaten shopping path -- and some way off the path.

Flea markets. Flea markets are known for housing a cornucopia of treasures, from antiques to new products, and from expensive to cheap. There's probably one near you: According to the National Flea Market Association, there are more than 1,100 flea markets throughout the country. And, of course, don't discount the flea market's close cousin: the garage sale.

Libraries. Nobody's suggesting you check out a book and give it to a family member or friend with the warning that it must be returned in two weeks. Some libraries, however, have seasonal book sales to drum up income, and others have stores that sell books year-round.

"My local library has a store that sells books for a dollar apiece to raise money for the library. Most of them are in very good shape, and there are books of all kinds," says Tracy Bagatelle-Black, a public relations executive in Los Angeles.

Barter. If you have something to barter -- a skill, for instance -- you might be able to find gifts that way. There are numerous bartering organizations (including u-exchange.com, tradeaway.com and barterquest.com) that you can generally join for free, although there are usually bartering fees and shipping costs involved. So your mileage may vary as to whether you find this route practical or not.

Dollar stores. If you don't have much money, these stores are famous for offering inexpensive household items and gifts. Five Below (FIVE) is a chain of stores in which everything is $5 or less. The company's spokesperson suggests checking its collection of "Hottest teen gifts for $5 or less" on the website Pinterest.

Consignment shops and thrift stores. Each features inexpensive merchandise, but there is a difference between the two. "A consignment shop implies higher-end, quality clothing that has been carefully selected for sale, rather than a thrift store where you'll find a wide range of donated merchandise," says Farrell Klein, a spokesperson for thredup.com, which is more or less a consignment store, but technically a fashion resale site because it pays sellers upfront for their clothing.

In any case, consignment shops, thrift stores and fashion resale stores can all yield inexpensive, appealing gifts.

Your local church, temple or mosque. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Reaching out for help may not be the easiest thing to do, but if you belong to a church, temple, mosque or have some other religious affiliation and are broke, and especially if you have children, this is the time to contact the office and ask if it has any programs or charities collecting holiday gifts for the needy -- and then get yourself on the list.

A charity. Other organizations to consider approaching include Toys for Toys, which has a nationwide network of programs through which it gives wrapped, new gifts to children up to age 12, although sometimes up to 16. The Salvation Army recommends making contact as early as October, so begin looking into its gift-giving program as quickly as possible.

Also check with your local food bank and see if it can connect you with other charities, or the food bank may have its own. For instance, in Central Ohio, a charity called Wagons Ho Ho Ho supports the Mid-Ohio Food Bank and donates 400 wagons filled with food to needy families. Receiving free food might allow you a little extra money for gifts -- and, if nothing else, ensure that nobody's hungry over the holidays.

"The families that receive these wagons many times have to choose between foods and utilities. Oftentimes, food dollars are the first to be cut," says Donn Ditzhazy, board president of Wagons Ho Ho Ho.

Dumpster shopping. It may sound like an act of desperation that only someone hitting rock bottom would try, but plenty of well-off, environmentally minded people do it. It's a form of holiday shopping that has something to offer those with few funds as well as those who simply want to try something different.

Jeff Ferrell never hesitates to do his holiday shopping in Dumpsters. Ferrell is a sociology professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of the book, "Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging."

He says the best items he has pulled from the trash over the years include a diamond bracelet, vintage watches, designer women's wear and expensive writing pens.

But actually searching through Dumpsters for things to give away as Christmas gifts? Yep, Ferrell says he does it all the time -- and people return the favor. "Given that much of what is thrown away is new or like new -- or classic and vintage -- my finds and subsequent gifts over the past few years have included new coats, high-end jewelry, watches, cut glass, artwork and the like," Ferrell says.

True, rooting through trash may not be the most conventional way to shop or the safest way, so if you're intrigued, take common-sense precautions. It also may not exactly be a pleasure cruise for your five senses, particularly your nostrils. But, hey, you can't argue with the price.

More from U.S. News:

13 Things You Shouldn't Buy on Black Friday
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Where to Find the Cheapest Holiday Gifts
We've said it many times already, and we'll say it once more: Black Friday is not the best time to buy toys for the holidays. Many will likely see discounts on Black Friday, and it may feel pretty good to get your shopping done early, but you won't love the sinking feeling you'll get when you see the same toys for even less about two weeks before Christmas.

Speaking of toys, if you're looking to buy a video game console this holiday, you'll get more bang for your buck by opting for a console deal that includes a few extras. In years past, the vast majority of Editors' Choice console deals consisted of holiday bundles that included premium accessories and two or three game titles. These were frequently discounted 30 percent to 40 percent off their retail prices.

A note about next-gen consoles: Unfortunately, we don't expect to see any discounts on the new Xbox One or PlayStation 4 this holiday, bundled or not. However, because these consoles are in high demand and will sell out quickly, we consider just finding one at list price -- even if it doesn't come bundled with a game or controller -- to be a "deal."

Black Friday is an excellent time to buy a new TV, as we predict a variety of size categories will hit their lowest price points. But don't expect the best deals to be tagged with name brands. Typically, the rock-bottom prices apply to third-tier manufacturers; brand-name TVs tend to see their best price of the year in late December as manufacturers look to clear stock before revealing 2014 models.
There's no shortage of digital camera deals around Black Friday, but premium current-generation cameras are just a few months away from being replaced by a new line of 2014 models. If you're eyeing a brand new digital SLR, we recommend waiting until after CES and into February for 2013 cameras to become "old," and thus receive aggressive discounts from retailers.
On Black Friday, we'll likely see some of the best apparel coupons of the year from a variety of retailers. However, if a new coat or jacket is on your list, it's smarter to hold off until January when winter apparel is added to clearance sales that will receive much deeper base discounts. We will inevitably find additional stacking coupons then too, which make end-of-season sales even better for your wallet.
While not typically on anyone's "To Buy on Black Friday" list, Christmas decor tends to end up in-cart on impulse buys. Sure, that string of lights or holiday wreath might be on sale, but deals on Christmas items get better the closer we get to the holiday itself -- and of course the best deals appear after the holiday. Last year, we listed the Musical Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in early November for $19 shipped. On Black Friday it fell to $15 shipped. By Christmas Eve it was available for $9 at Kmart.
For those of you looking to get a leg up on any fitness New Year's resolutions, you should resolve to wait to buy any fitness equipment. During Black Friday weekend 2012, we listed just two Editors' Choice fitness deals, while December and January each saw more than five times that amount on a variety of gear including heart rate monitors, ab machines, ellipticals, and yoga equipment.
We're flagging this category "Do Not Buy" for the entire holiday season. Much like Christmas items, there will be lots of sales advertising shiny, metallic objects perfect for him and her. But the discounts on jewelry around the winter holidays are no better than those around Valentine's Day, when baubles are at their most in-demand. Last year, we posted just four Editors' Choice watch deals and three Editors' Choice jewelry deals from Black Friday through Cyber Monday.
The stylish second-generation iPad mini with Retina will set you back the same amount as an iPad 2 ($399), and if the iPad mini Retina follows the price pattern as its predecessor, it won't see a 10% discount until several months from now. While there's an off-chance that an attention-seeking retailer could offer an iPad mini Retina Black Friday deal, the original, first-generation iPad mini is a better buy this holiday season: the Apple Store has already discounted its retail price to $299, and it could drop to as low as $269 in the coming months.
For the past two years, no new Kindle Fire HD tablet has seen any significant discounts on Black Friday, likely because the tablets are already so cheap. The device has fallen in price, since the addition of the Kindle HDX to the lineup meant that Amazon dropped the price of the Kindle Fire HD to $139. But this dirt-cheap alternative to the higher price points just means that Amazon doesn't need to discount its tablets, which it already sells "at cost." And this week's limited time only 15 percent off coupon doesn't change that; it's the first coupon we've ever seen for new Kindles, and a one-time offer in celebration of the FAA's decision to lift the ban on electronics use during takeoff and landing.
While we don't know anyone who doesn't appreciate a seasonal throw blanket, we don't recommend giving them as gifts this year unless you've got a stock of them in the closet from last season. Not only does holiday decor get cheaper after the holiday in question, but bedding and blankets fall to their lowest prices of the year come January and February during "White Sales," which have been a colorful tradition since the 1950s.
Perhaps better received than throw blankets, gift baskets and wine subscriptions are especially popular during the holidays. But as the giver, you'll get a better deal on specialty foods (i.e. Omaha Steak gift bundles, fruit baskets, and assorted baked goods) if you wait until December; last year we saw twice as many Editors' Choice deals close to Christmas than around Thanksgiving.

If you have your sights set on a trip to California or Florida, by all means purchase airfare around Black Friday and even closer to Christmas; last year we saw up to 50 percent off coupons from Frontier, JetBlue, and Virgin America. However, if it's an international getaway you're after, we advise you to hold off on booking your flight until the new year. Last year, we saw zero Editors' Choice airfare deals between Thanksgiving and New Year's. But in the first two months of the year, Air Canada offered the lowest base rate we'd seen for flights to Toronto; JetBlue took 80 percent off select flights to the Caribbean; and Lufthansa offered roundtrip fares to Europe for $471.

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