8 ways to save time and money on holiday shopping

It's still October and already schedules are filling up with things to do to prepare for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas, Hanukkah and more.

On top of the normal things that need done -- changing your oil, sending out cards, finding time to work out -- you still need to shop for gifts, which is no small matter.

A recent analysis of shopping habits, sponsored by search engine Bing, found that in the process of searching for the right gift and looking for the best deal, the average American will lose $114 this year.

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The combined $98 in lost productivity and $16 in gas, spread out over the average 5.4 shopping trips, will result in a 10% surcharge on each of your holiday presents.

With the potential to waste more than $100 wasting time looking, researching, and shopping for gifts, we spoke to Mary Hunt, author of "Debt Proof Living," to get these 8 tips to avoid wasting money on holiday shopping.

Have a Plan: Fools rush in, and only fools rush into holiday shopping without some kind of plan. Right now is the time to sit down and figure out your plan of attack for holiday shopping.

First off, be realistic in your planning. There's no sense in setting a budget that's too high or too low to live with. Hunt also cautions that, "Many times we forget the expenses of the holidays are more than just gifts. There's entertainment and there's shipping and there's gift wrapping and there's cards, and there's office functions and all of that. Now, before the crush of the holidays comes too heavily, is a good time to sit down and think what am I going to do for the holidays?"

Use the Internet: Hunt calls the Internet "a wonderful tool for shopping online," giving the average consumer the power to narrow, decide and ultimately purchase the best bargain.

One thing to keep in mind when venturing out onto the World Wide Web for research is that there is too much of a good thing. Personally I can research an item for hours, even days, before a purchase to make sure it's the right gadget for me but, as Hunt pointed out, that may not be the best use of my time. Hunt's favorite place to start her online research is Bing, "because it offers reviews, price comparisons and helps find free shipping."

Look for Cashback: Originally something that started with credit cards, cashback is now a popular way to save with online shopping by using Bing Cashback. Shoppers who start their purchase through a Bing search can get cash back from hundreds of popular retailers including eBay. But -- you should be sure to pay attention when using Bing Cashback -- while you can combine cashback with the low deals of participating stores, using a coupon will invalidate your cashback.

So long as you use it wisely, Bing's Cashback is an easy way to save up to 40% on a gift; I saved well over $100 last year on one purchase alone.

Shop Alone: "The most under-rated way to shop," Hunt said, "especially for new mothers, is alone." That's right mom and dad, leave your little one with a sitter for most of the holiday shopping. According to Hunt, "Shopping alone makes you a better shopper, letting you devote all of your mental facilities to the job at hand." That doesn't mean you can't take your tike to the toy store though, just make that a special trip with a purpose of having fun, rather than shopping for gifts.

Keep Receipts: With more retailers tightening up their return policies, like Target, keeping receipts will be more important than ever this year. Hunt recommends keeping a special folder or box for all of your receipts and always asking for a gift receipt. I've taken to scanning all my gift receipts into a special folder on my computer, using NeatReceipts, for easy access in the event of a warranty claim or other issue.

Use One E-mail Account: Another way to keep your receipts in one place is to use a dedicated e-mail address for all of your online shopping. This is also Hunt's way of keeping the e-mail ads that retailers send out oh so frequently from clogging up her daily inbox and is similar to my solution of creating an e-mail filter to deal with restaurant offers.

Credit Card Tips: Just like a single inbox can make online shopping easier, using a single credit card to make holiday purchases can give you an easy way to track holiday spending. This single card method is also handy in the event that your credit card number is compromised, since you only need to cancel one card and don't have to worry about any automated payments that might be linked to it.

Hunt was very adamant that you, "never shop online with a debit card!" While you may like the convenience of money coming straight out of your checking account debit cards don't offer the same protection against theft, offer chargebacks or extend your warranties.

Shop Early: The final tip from Hunt, "Shop early!" Not only are stores stocking less this season, which means less selection and fewer deep discounts in late December; but it also means you can keep your mind clear and enjoy the holidays with your family and friends.

Put these tips into practice as you shop this year and not only will you save some money, but also your sanity.
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