7 Last-Minute Holiday Shopping Tips

Christmas shopping crowd in Midtown Manhattan New York City

By Hitha Prabhakar

Few things evoke panic like last-minute shopping for holiday gifts. If you've waited until now to head to the stores, you're not the only one.

According to the National Retail Federation, nearly 32 million people had yet to begin their shopping as of Dec 9. If they aren't careful, they run the risk of not getting the right gift at the right price, or worse, coming home empty-handed. To ensure no one is disappointed and you don't break the bank, check out the following tips:

1. Stick to your list. When shopping time starts to run low, common sense often disappears. The temptation to overspend is especially strong in stores where it's easy to become distracted. Go to stores with your list and a budget in mind -- and stick to it!

2. Shop online. Avoid the crowds and the stress by shopping online. Many online retailers are promising to deliver gifts by Christmas day if orders are placed by Dec. 20 using two-day shipping. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%A few will even guarantee on-time delivery if you ship overnight by midday on Dec. 22. If you're traveling for the holidays, purchasing gifts online and sending them directly to your destination will save room in your bags, and perhaps an unintended baggage fee.

3. Get thrifty. Shop thrift stores, flea markets and consignment shops for unique gifts you won't find at the mall. The beauty of thrift stores is the volume and variety you'll find: You can do all your holiday shopping in one handy location, and you won't pay department store prices.

4. Donate to charity. If you've waited until the last minute, giving a monetary gift to charity is a great alternative. Many local organizations provide timely holiday aid to those in need -- from children's shelters to food banks. Making a donation to a charity in your area in the name of a relative or friend is the perfect gift for those people who don't really need anything new.

5. Shop early or late. When holiday shopping days start to dwindle and the number of procrastinating shoppers rises, do what you can to avoid the competition. Most stores offer early-morning and late-evening hours during the holidays, and these nonpeak shopping times offer better access to merchandise plus shorter checkout lines. If you have a day to spare, consider taking a day off from work and finishing your shopping while everyone else is at the office.

6. Compare and save. Once you have your last-minute gift ideas selected, it's likely you'll find several retailers offering the same items at different prices. It's much easier to toggle between websites offering product details at home than to drive from store to store. Make sure to check out prices, shipping cost, speed of shipping, gift wrapping availability and the company's return policy when comparing. You'll be surprised how much you can save.

7. Do-it-yourself. Handmade gifts don't have to be predictable or subpar. If you have a special talent for making baked goods or reclaimed wood picture frames, put that talent to use! What's more, you don't have to stand in store aisles debating which to color, size or shape to choose.

People spend a lot of time looking for the perfect gifts and with good reason. Having a set gift purchasing strategy is key to enjoying a less stressful holiday and an even happier financial situation in the new year!

Hitha Prabhakar is a consumer spending and retail analyst and Mint.com spokeswoman, the leading web and mobile money management tool that helps people understand and do more with their money.

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7 Last-Minute Holiday Shopping Tips
You're in your late 20s or early 30s, recently married and likely have a household income between $50,000 and $100,000. You probably own a home, most likely in an upscale suburban neighborhood. You're a fan of "green and trendy cars," shop at Banana Republic (GPS) and The Gap (GPS) and are a loyal Netflix Inc (NFLX) subscriber.
You're in your 30s or 40s, live in a rural town and earn a moderate income. You may be married, but you don't have any children. You shop at stores like Wal-mart (WMT) and AutoZone and enjoy watching NASCAR and classic shows on TV Land.
Between 18 and 23 years old, you're single and highly mobile. You're likely a renter and probably live in a college town. You buy clothes from American Eagle (AEO) and Express Inc (EXPR) and are a frequent liquor store patron. Your TV is tuned to Family Guy and you probably have copies of Rolling Stone and Us Weekly lying around.
You're in your 30s or 40s, married without any kids. You enjoy a six-figure household income and likely have a graduate degree. You shop at stores like Ann Taylor (ANN ) and Sephora, read magazines like Men's Health and Real Simple and use the web to check your stock investments and make travel plans.
You're part of an upper-middle class family, likely living in a smaller city or nearby suburb. You probably drive a minivan. You shop at stores like Home Depot (HD), Target (TGT) and Best Buy (BBY), read Sports Illustrated and listen to NPR.
You're a childless, single "urbanite" living in a city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Well-educated, you likely enjoy museums and the theater. You buy groceries from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, outfit your home with Crate & Barrel and buy clothes from Banana Republic. You read The New York Times (NYT) and watch The Office.
You're a single parent living in a city, likely on an income of less than $50,000. You shop at Kmart (SHLD) and Payless ShoeSource, read magazines like Ebony and Seventeen and watch soap operas and BET.
You're a retiree, likely living alone on a modest income. You are active in your community, frequently clip coupons and shop primarily at discount stores like Kmart. Your favorite TV shows include The Price Is Right,
 Wheel of Fortune and 60 Minutes.
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