Holiday Shopping Without Breaking Your Budget

Gift giving for the 2005 holiday season has been even more of a challenge than it was a year ago. With layoffs, plant closings, manufacturing outsourcing becoming now the norm rather than the exception, it’s becoming harder and harder to express your love at the holidays with gifts that you won’t end up paying off in June of ’06.

Of course, you have a written list of those for whom you need to present a present. Whether it’s eight days of gift giving or one huge day of presents, it is imperative that you have a written list. You can add to or delete from the list, of course, but you must be armed with something in writing, almost like a pact with yourself. It is also necessary that you include a price range for each and every person or entity on that list. Otherwise, if you run across an impulse item that you think would be just so absolutely perfect for Aunt Jane, someone else on your list will suffer!

Basically, your system breaks down into three types of gifts that you should consider, and I’ll explain why for each: Gift cards, clearance items and homemade gifts.

Gift cards are a wildly popular item. In my own family, I started giving my daughters gift cards during the holidays and they were thrilled! It gave them a sense of their own destiny, so to speak, in that they were able to select just which pajamas, jeans, dresses, slacks, earrings, makeup, etc. that met their own individual needs and styles. There are two benefits to giving a gift card: the recipient is able to fill in those rather gloomy, let-down days after the holidays by making their purchases with the gift cards, hunting down exactly what they want to get in the cold, gray days of January. Also, in most cases, you will literally double the amount of the gift card’s face value because nearly all items will be deeply discounted following December 25th.

A pair of jeans that you might buy instead of getting a gift card will be 40% to 50% off after Christmas; you will have saved that amount by buying a gift card instead. It also takes the pressure off of the recipient who didn’t get exactly what they wanted, or what fit, or the color they adore, and have to return the gift. (This involves your having (hopefully!) kept the original receipt, giving the receipt to them so that they can make the return, an arduous, long task in itself.) Gift cards are available at major retailers; some of my personal favorites include Abercrombie & Fitch, Sephora, H & M, Target, Circuit City, Ulta, Home Depot, Victoria’s Secret, and Macy’s. Gift cards are also available at the Customer Service Desk of major malls; most of them are valid for every store within the mall, but do be careful! Don’t get a gift card from a vendor at a mall kiosk under any circumstances. Chances are they’ll have packed up and moved on by December 24th. Check with the Customer Service folks at your favorite mall to make sure that a mall gift card may be used at every (permanent) store in the mall. Ask questions: are there restrictions? does the gift card expire within a certain time frame? These are questions you should be asking of every store at which you purchase a gift card: can it be used nationally? can it be used online? does it have an expiration period?

Overall, gift cards are a wonderful idea! The lucky recipient can now take advantage of the store’s huge after-Christmas savings and can get exactly what they were hoping for at a great price – and maybe even more, because of the savings. I would suggest that you stay in the $25 to $100 range for every gift card purchased; under $25 doesn’t buy all that much, but with afte holiday discounts, you’ll be surprised at how much you really can get. I normally purchase several gift cards in the $25 to $50 range for really great gift giving. The recipient will be amazed at how much they’ll be able to buy (on sale, of course, when the same item was significantly higher four days’ earlier). I would discourage gift cards over $100, unless it is with a reputable electronics company, high end clothing company or a store that offers items of great interest to the potential recipient (i.e., a truly dedicated book lover, a kid who wants their own DVD player and the DVD’s that go in it, a young lady who consistently buys her wardrobe at that particular store.)

If you think giving a gift card may be ‘cold’, consider the benefits and make an extra effort to box it nicely! At Victoria’s Secret, for example, this year they are offering adorable pink striped boxes with thier trademark Pink pup inside. There’s an insert in which the gift card may be placed, and the box can be used for jewelry, cosmetics, etc. afterwards. It’s a nice little gift unto itself! Put the gift card in a huge box – or put it in a small box enclosed in a series of large descending to smaller boxes within the big box! Buy an inexpensive holiday stocking and put the gift card in it – be creative! I would caution about getting gift cards for specific services or events, such as hot air balloon rides, spa and beauty certificates and certain types of clothing (couture, equestrienne) unless you are absolutely sure that the recipient is up for the idea and will actually USE that particular service.

As for the clearance items, this will take you to the back of every store almost everywhere. Last month, I found a genuine Izod Lacoste summer tote bag, originally priced at $135, on sale for $33.00 at a really neat store in SoHo, The Flying W. We also found several gorgeous, high end beaded summer tops, shorts, pajama sets there as well, all at 75% off their original price. Don’t let a moment of false pride prevent you from saving hundreds of dollars. Ask the sales clerk where the sale/clearance rack is if you can’t find it yourself. Make sure to keep your sales receipts! If you need to return the item, you will need that receipt to do so. (Actually, you should be saving ALL of your sales receipts for holiday purchases; stick them in a separate letter-sized envelope and hold on to them until after the holidays.) Many stores, especially Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, now include their fall merchandise on clearance; these are items – sweaters, corduroy slacks, etc. – that can be worn and used now! Be sure to ask the sales clerk if the clearance items can be returned, and if so, until what time period. With profit margins running thin for most retailers, more and more of them are marking current items down to clearance levels to make way for the spring season.

Finally, we come to homemade gifts. These can consist of so many things, especially if you are artistically inclined. Among the homemade gifts that we would recommend are the holiday cookies, chocolate chip cookies, fudge, brownies, homemade specialty seasoned oils for breads to be dipped in, and holiday platters offering a variety of homemade foods. These are all great hits with your postal carrier, cleaning folks, household help, babysitter, bank tellers, neighbors, teachers etc.; just about everyone appreciates homemade foods during the busy holiday season – especially when you take the time to decorate your gift well. Use inexpensive little holiday ornaments, figurines and bottles in which to present your gifts; attach a small or regular sized holiday stocking with your card or holiday message inside. As a matter of fact, homemade holiday stockings themselves are awesome gifts! We treasure the homemade stockings we’ve received over the years. Another great homemade gift is a nicely done tree skirt, as are a half dozen handmade holiday ornaments. (We’ve treasured those ornaments as well over the years!) Be creative; sit down with a pad of paper and a pen, and come up with a list of homemade articles and items that you can do quickly and very well.

If you think things through, work on resolution rather than emotions, and time your holiday shopping well, you’ll be able to stay well within your gift-giving budget. Of course, there’s always holiday shopping on Ebay as well, where you can find a load of incredibly priced items, but that’s fodder for another holiday shopping article in itself!

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