Black Friday is right around the corner, and shoppers are already being primed by retailers for the kind of buying gluttony that makes eater's remorse look like a bloated post-Thanksgiving walk in the park.
In the same way that dieters count calories before they start gorging in order to avoid weight gain this time of year, the best way to avoid the accumulation of extra debt is to create a spending plan, a.k.a. a budget, and then stick to it.
While this may sound simple, it's not something that should exist in a nebulous way. You can't have a list in your head and engage in sensible spending unless you have an army of elves on your payroll. Make that list. Check it twice. And then forget who was naughty or nice: Spend what you can afford. Here are some more tips that can help protect your finances this holiday shopping season.
1. Carefully Consider Store Credit Cards
One way to stretch your spending power is to increase your available credit. Many retailers offer credit cards with zero interest for a certain period of time, instant approval, and occasionally a decent discount
Before you accept the offer or decide that you can manage more available credit while maintaining a utilization ratio under 10% (a best practice for maximizing your credit score), make sure you understand the terms of engagement. That zero-interest period offered in big type on the card application may morph into a high-interest loan before you know it, and with that, the likelihood increases exponentially that any discount you received for signing up will be lost to interest payments.
If you do elect to get a new credit card, just make sure you can manage your credit responsibly by keeping your debt levels low and making payments on time. (You can check on your finances by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
2. Note Deal Exclusions
It is not unusual to be mugged by your own expectations during the holiday season. This is especially the case when it comes to special offers and deep retailer discounts. Never forget that they were engineered by marketing pros to get you to the store.
What happens when you get there can often be an infuriatingly familiar tale of holiday shopping woe: The particular item that you want — generally something that a lot of people want, and which sells briskly without the aid of the proffered discount — is not eligible for the promotion, something you would have known had you been able to understand the auctioneer-speed exclusions read at the end of the 30-second ad spot or taken the time to read the print ad.
If you see a promotion this holiday season, if the must-have toy that cannot be found is supposedly available, or if a promotion has you thinking that you're going to get off easy financially on a particular gift purchase, it's a good idea to call ahead and make sure you're not hitting the shopper frustration zone.
Remember: If it seems too good to be true, it may well be.
RELATED: Here are some more ways retailers try to get you to spend money during the holidays:
10 ways retailers trick you to spend more during the holidays
10 ways retailers trick you to spend more during the holidays
1. They play relaxing music.
If a crying baby and crowded theater can get you to bow out of a movie, chances are you won’t enjoy venturing to a crowded mall to go shopping — or spend very long in stores. Queue the calming music.
Research reported by the American Psychological Association and European Journal of Scientific Research shows that when you go into a store with relaxing music, you’re much more likely to spend more time there. If you’re already in a buying mood, chances are you might end up with an extra item or two in your basket.
Shoppers who hear classical music while shopping, for example, might spend more money than they planned because the genre is connected to the perception of affluence, reported U.S. News. This tactic is used more frequently during the holiday season, said retail specialist Mari Corella, who has worked with large national retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Williams-Sonoma and Sears.
Retailers also use holiday-specific scents to try to increase your will to spend money, said Corella.
“Retailers often scent their stores during the holidays with seasonal fragrances such as gingerbread and pine,” she said. “Similar to Christmas music, this tactic invokes a sense of warmness and generosity, all leading to larger purchases.”
This tactic is used by small and large businesses, and can be especially effective when the scent complements music being played, said Bruce Sanders, a retail consultant, consumer psychologist and author of “Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers.”
“Small retail stores use candles, and large retailers use fragrance diffuser machines,” he said. “If Christmas music and Christmas scent in the store match up, people say they like the store and merchandise better and are more likely to shop at the store.”
Sensory experiences can play a large role in your perception of a store and brand. The more pleasant the shopping experience, the more likely you’ll walk out the door with less money in your hand.
3. They make you nostalgic.
Retailers frequently sell items that appeal to people’s feelings of nostalgia, such as a ’50s-style dining set, an old-school video game system or a retro turntable.
Gifts that trigger a memory or inspire a young person to try something from the past can offer richness that general gifts like candles cannot, according to Fortune Magazine.
Creating these feelings of nostalgia seem to have a significant impact on the spending behaviors of shoppers. Nostalgia led shoppers to pay more money for products and value their money less, according to a study from the Journal of Consumer Research.
4. They offer bulk pricing.
You might be accustomed to two-for-one deals, but you can expect even more of them — and larger bulk offers — during the holidays.
Grocery stores, in particular, use this tactic frequently, such as by offering 10 items for $10, making you think you have to buy 10 to get the $1-per-item deal. But, usually, you can get the deal price regardless of how many items you buy.
Research has shown that adding the sentence “maximum eight cans per customer” to the price tag of soup cans caused sales to increase by giving the illusion of a great discount even if none was offered, according to Time.
5. They use the number 9.
While shoppers are accustomed to the majority of retail items going for prices such as $39.99 instead of $40, not many shoppers stop to think about why merchandise is priced this way. Not using round numbers is another trick intended to make you spend more, said William Poundstone, author of “Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value.”
In his book, Poundstone looked at eight different studies on the use of what is called “charm prices” and found that using this pricing method increased sales on average by 24 percent when compared to the use of rounded, even pricing.
While this pricing structure probably won’t change anytime soon, customers should just remind themselves that while $39.99 looks cheaper than $40, it’s only a 1 cent difference.
6. They put more profitable items at eye level.
Stores often put items with the best price margins at eye level so that you see the products easily. Items that are better buys for the customer — and therefore not as profitable for the retailer — are more likely to be found at the bottom or top of aisles.
“This is a classic retail tactic,” Corella said. “Eye level is such valuable real estate that retailers charge manufacturers to have placement there. This cost is then passed on to the consumer. And kids are not exempt from this tactic either, as products targeted towards children are placed at their eye level.”
7. They mark up prices before the holidays.
Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com, a site that helps consumers save money, said the holiday season is notorious for what is called “high-low pricing,” which often tricks consumers into thinking they are getting a much better deal than they really are.
“[High-low pricing] is when retailers have relatively high everyday prices, then release ‘holiday’ coupons to make you think you’re getting an amazing discount via the coupon,” said James. “In reality, retailers that use high-low pricing know they’ll sell minimal items at full retail, and if they do, it’s a bonus.”
James said you’ll likely see this tactic used by many popular retailers during the holidays, such as from Ann Taylor, JCPenney, Kohl’s and Old Navy.
8. They sell you gift sets.
Head into a place like Bath & Body Works or Williams-Sonoma, and you’ll find plenty of gift sets, whether it’s a set of lotion, body wash and perfume, or a barbecue essentials kit. These gift sets even come in nice packaging, which means you have a beautiful-looking gift ready to go.
Gift sets seem like a great deal because the value of all items priced together is typically lower than if you were to buy them separately. The stated value of the set, however, is the full retail of all items in it, so it can sometimes be cheaper to buy the items separately if they are on sale, said Corella. Buying gift sets also can lead to overspending, she said.
“This is also an upsell tactic where you come in to buy a single item but end up with a gift set because it seems like you get so much more for just a few more dollars,” said Corella.
9. They mix high-cost items with regular-priced goods.
The holiday season is a popular time for some retailers to mix luxury items with other products so pricing on regular items look much more reasonable by comparison, Sanders said.
“When Neiman Marcus publicizes their annual Christmas Book, they highlight the Fantasy Gifts, which for 2015 include a $125,000 bourbon tasting tour and a $90,000 balloon ascent to the edge of space,” said Sanders. “Leading off by thinking about these, the Christmas Book browser starts to consider that $895 price for a designer triacetate-and-polyester gown as a little more down to earth. The price of the first item considered becomes an anchor for what the shopper expects to pay.”
10. They make finding clearance items hard.
Clearance racks or shelves are often located all the way in the back of the store or are hidden as much as possible because retailers want you to have to walk through the entire store to get to them, according to Business Insider. By walking through the store, you’re more likely to see higher-priced items first, which you might end up buying.
Once you do find the clearance section, it’s purposefully in a state of disarray. True bargain shoppers don’t mind sifting through the mess to find the great deals, but the average shopper is more likely to be turned off by the obstacle and instead buy non-clearance items, letting the retailer win.
While shopping this holiday season, be aware of these tricks that retailers use to try to outsmart you. Your wallet and bank account will thank you.
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3. Beware Gift Card Fraud
There's nothing worse than hitting 10 outlet stores on Black Friday and coming up empty for someone on your list. Gift cards can be a great way to solve your holiday shopping shortfalls. Who doesn't like store credit? But beware of the scams.
Fraudsters have been known to photograph the numbers on gift cards at a store and then call the customer service departments identified on the back of the cards to see if (and when) they have been activated, so they can drain them. If you give a card, you might want to tell the recipient that it's best to use it as soon as possible.
Avoid buying gift cards from a third party, since there are many counterfeiters out there and you cannot be sure that you are getting what you paid for. That said, the multiple retailer card displays that you encounter at supermarkets and pharmacy chains are generally a safe place to buy gift cards.
4. Research Store Promotions
The best way to navigate Black Friday deals is to master them before you go shopping. Thinking about applying for a store credit card? Do the research before you're at the checkout counter and facing down a 10-to-20% discount. If you know which retailers you are going to visit, go online and find out what promotions they have. Plan your day according to those promotions, since other shoppers will have done their homework as well, and the best deals will be where you encounter the longest lines if you don't get in line at the crack of dawn.
As with all things shopping-related, if you do the legwork before you actually hoof it to your local mall or outlet center, you will get the best bang for your buck. Make a plan and stick to it.
Bottom line: Anyone can get through the holiday season without suffering the personal finance version of seasonal weight gain, but you can't wing it.