5 ways to get a big head start on holiday shopping

The Best Holiday Shopping Apps

Each year around the holidays, you may look at your calendar and realize with horror that you aren't prepared. There isn't enough money or time to buy gifts or upgrade decorations to replicate the amazing holidays you remember as a kid. So why not start preparing for the December shopping onslaught now? If you're one of those super organized people, or you'd like to be, here's your preholiday shopping checklist.

Study the calendar.

If you're going to take this seriously, you should calculate how many days are left until the holidays. You probably don't have as much time as you think. Before you know it, the summer will be over, and if you have children, you may be sucked into an abyss of soccer games, marching band or cheerleading competitions and school plays – not to mention all the time and energy you'll spend trying to get your kids off their devices and looking at their homework instead.

Then suddenly Halloween is here, Thanksgiving, and, bam: It's December. If you feel like properly panicking, check out the XmasClock.com. On one hand, you may see that there are 140 days until Christmas, at least at the time of this writing; on the other hand, there are only 140 days until Christmas. And if Hanukkah is your holiday happy place, you only have 122 days.

Set a budget.

Once you know how much time you have, calculate how much you want to spend on gifts for the holidays. Even if you don't want to shop now, you could at least start putting money aside, and maybe you won't experience a lot of financial pain over the holidays.

"Even if you're not worried about carefully putting money aside, making a gift list now and figuring out what you can afford to spend on each person is extremely smart, so that you can shop over the course of the next few months without losing track of how much you're truly spending," says Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing with DealNews.com.

She adds that a gift list is important because "it's a lot easier to forget how much you spent on holiday gifts if it's spread out over several months. You're more likely to be acutely aware of your expenses when cramming it all into two or three weeks."

You won't just save yourself from spending a ton of money in December. You'll have more free time over the holidays if you "wrap gifts along the way instead of finding yourself in a ribboned frenzy come December," advises Trisha Sweeney, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer at Shoebuy.com.

She also suggests keeping a folder full of coupons or any deals you want to take advantage of.

Consider layaway.

This is the time to start thinking about layaway – not in mid-November, when your window of time is so much shorter. Layaway is a system where you pay for purchases upfront, a little at a time, until you've made the purchase. The idea is that it's a safer, smarter approach than buying a bunch of stuff on a credit card and possibly carrying revolving debt into the spring.

But layaway isn't a perfect scenario. "You might still overspend because you are not paying for the items outright and may therefore be unaware of how much you are spending altogether," says Leslie Tayne, an attorney, debt specialist and author of the book "Life & Debt."

She adds: "Layaway may also result with impulse spending and you buying things you might have not normally bought if you were paying for the items immediately."

Layaway is generally a smarter approach than buying gifts on credit cards, Tayne says. Still, she advises consumers to "always find out the terms of a layaway program before committing. If there is a fee or any type of interest, it may not be worth it."

Some of the big layaway players include Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sears, Toys R Us and eLayaway.com. There are also websites like GiftStarter.com, where customers can choose the product they want to buy, break the cost into as many pieces as they need and pay at their own pace.

Take advantage of tax holidays.

About half the states in the country have tax-free holiday weekends that allow you to make purchases without paying state sales taxes. (It's usually up to a certain amount, so it won't be practical for most people to do all their holiday shopping during one of these weekends.) Most states tend to have them in August. Check if your state has one coming up at taxadmin.org/fta/rate/sales_holiday.html.

Begin shopping carefully.

That's what all of this budgeting and planning is leading up to, right? An excuse to start shopping. But it can be a smart financial move, says Lorelei Harloe, an avid shopper who lives in Oakton, Virginia, and owns her own public relations firm. She says she often shops for holiday gifts well before the holiday season.

"The sales are incredible now, especially at the big retailers like Macy's and Nordstrom," Harloe says.

If you shop for all your holiday gifts now, you may lose money by not taking advantage of the huge, year-end sales. But that's not always the case, she says.

"If you tend to give evergreen gifts such as jewelry, maximize end-of-year-summer clearance and fall sales," she says. "If you think it would make a great gift, there's no reason to wait until the holidays."

Sure, it may seem crazy to think about the holidays now – as if merchants don't showcase the holiday season early enough. But if you wait until Black Friday or beyond and find yourself in a shopping panic, remember that you were warned.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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5 ways to get a big head start on holiday shopping


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