Even during this unusual year (to say the least), the runup to the holidays is looking familiar: Your inbox is bursting with online holiday deals, while your bank account is looking empty. Maybe more empty than usual, thanks to a brutal COVID economy.
Meanwhile, your shopping list still looks long enough to rival Santa’s.
All of this may be part of tradition, but personal finance expert Suze Orman warns shoppers to avoid the urge to overspend while hunting for presents and stocking stuffers.
Here are 12 holiday shopping secrets from the popular author and TV personality.
1. Make an unbreakable budget
“In January we start saving money, getting out of credit card debt, funding our retirement accounts, and we’re doing wonderful,” Orman said on CNBC.
“Then, every single year like clockwork, starting in November, all of you fall into this trap that says, ‘I have to buy this gift ... I can’t show up at this party and not have something for everybody,'" she says.
To manage your holiday shopping budget, Orman says decide how much you can afford to spend. Divide that by the number of people you plan to shop for, to determine the maximum you can spend per person. Then, ask the people on your list to write down five items in your price range.
If you can't stand budgeting, you can find apps that will do your budgeting for you.
2. Shop Cyber Monday, not Black Friday
Holiday sales events might be your best bet for scoring great deals on fantastic presents, but don’t get carried away.
Orman recommends that you shop on Cyber Monday instead of Black Friday, since you’ll be less distracted by all the other stuff you see in stores. If you do decide to hit a brick-and-mortar location, write down what you need first.
“Write it down on a piece of paper,” Orman tells ABC News. “That is, if you are shopping, why are you coming to the mall? You need to think about it before you go.”
This year, most retailers are offering online sales both days, so you can avoid shopping in-store entirely. Download a price-checking browser extension to compare deals, instead of making the rounds at the mall.
3. Avoid using credit
If you’ve been trying to pay down your debt this past year, now is not the time to relapse.
Orman says to always shop within your means — and that means paying off your credit cards right away or leaving them at home.
"Challenge yourself not to buy any gift with a credit card,” Orman writes on Oprah.com. “When you're limited to cash or a debit card (with no overdraft coverage), you're much more likely to purchase only what you can afford.”
If you’re afraid of missing out on cash back or rewards points, you should know that credit cards aren’t the only way to get them. An app called Fetch, for example, will let you earn cash back just by snapping a photo of your receipt at multiple big-box retailers.
4. Buy small gifts people really want
Everyone has unused gifts sitting in the back of their closet, dusty and forgotten. Don’t make it worse — buy gifts that people will actually enjoy.
Orman urges you to pay attention to what your loved ones want or need (a specific hair product, for example) instead of maxing out your credit card on something generic they’ll re-gift in a few months' time.
“Chances are the person that you're giving the gift to won't even remember what you gave them next year, but yet you'll still be paying for that gift for the next five to 10 years or more,” Orman says on her blog.
5. Give cash, not gift cards
Some gift cards are great, especially if you can get them for free. However, just like an unused scarf or phone case, unwanted gift cards can clutter up your drawers.
“Last year alone, over $2 billion were not used on gift cards,” Orman told Today in 2013. “If you want to give someone cash, then give them cash.”
For those of you who do have unused gift cards sitting in a drawer, Orman recommends that you re-gift them to someone else, donate them to a nonprofit organization or sell them online.
6. Talk to your loved ones
Just be honest with each other. If you’re running low on cash or are stuck in debt and can’t afford an expensive gift, talk to your friend or family member about it.
If the other person’s going through the same thing, you can avoid the obligatory gift exchange and save you both from unnecessary spending.
“Initiate a frank discussion with your nearest and dearest about scaling back holiday giving,” Orman writes on Oprah.com.
“This is the perfect time to break the all-too-common cycle of spending more and more money (which, let's face it, many of us don't have) every year — and forgetting what the holidays are really about.” Orman says consider gifting your time and love instead.
7. Don’t be distracted by promotions
It’s tempting to seize on those great holiday sales you see advertised in all the flyers and emails. But Orman says you should buy what you need when you can afford it — not just because it’s a good deal.
"Here is the main message: When do you buy what you need versus what you can afford?" Orman tells ABC News.
"If we just turned into a society that buys what we need, regardless of what we can afford ... We will get on the right path and give ourselves the greatest gift of all — the gift of financial independence," she says.
8. Go homemade
Holiday cheer doesn’t need to come from a store.
You can still show appreciation for your loved ones by going homemade, baking treats or offering your time to babysit or clean. Orman even suggests writing a letter to express your love and gratitude.
“Always remember the holiday season is about giving,” Orman writes on her blog. “True giving is giving joy, is giving time, is giving appreciation [and] showing true love for others.”
9. Rethink your nice list
You probably don’t need to buy gifts for as many people as you think you do. Take another look at your list of gift recipients and figure out who you’d like to prioritize to fit into your budget.
"If you don't have money and you're buying a gift for somebody, chances are they don't have money, either,” she writes on her blog.
“If you give them a gift, they're going to feel obligated to give you a gift back. Now you're both going to have to put those gifts on your credit cards, and you're both going to be spending money that neither of you can afford.”
You don’t want to be stuck in a cycle of mindless spending, so focus on the important people in your life. If you’re participating in a Secret Santa at the workplace, Orman recommends re-gifting any old or unopened gifts sitting in your closet.
10. Check online shopping portals
Instead of going directly to a store’s website, try shopping portals that get you cash back, discounts or coupons.
“I hope you take the time this holiday season to think strategically about how you can save as much as possible when doing your holiday shopping,” Orman writes on her blog.
Orman suggests using sites including Rakuten or TopCashBack.com to help you save while you complete your holiday tasks.
And be sure to use other online tools at your disposal to squeeze out all the savings you can.
11. Ask yourself three questions
Before you decide to splurge on a gift, take a moment to reflect on whether it’s really worth the cost.
Orman says to ask yourself these three questions:
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
Is it true?
“Those three gatekeepers can help you slow down before you overspend this holiday season,” she advises on her blog.
“A gift purchase that comes from the deepest, purest place in your heart is nonetheless a mistake if it is not kind, to you. What do I mean by that? Well, if you can’t really afford the gift, it’s a bad choice," Orman says. By "true," she means you should determine if the gift is true to who you are and your goals.
12. Don’t wait until the last minute
Start thinking about what you want to give the people in your life so you can get your shopping done early.
You don’t want to wait until the day before Christmas Eve when store shelves are empty or buy the first thing you see just so you have something to place under your tree.
When you wait till the last minute to purchase a gift, “you’re buying things that are more expensive, you’re not thinking about it, and chances are that you’re buying things that the person you’re going to give it to doesn’t even want,” Orman explained on CNBC.