1. Convince your family to do a gift exchange. Instead of buying a gift for everyone in your family and vice versa, Fanny Seto, the blogger behind Living Richly on a Budget and author of Budgeting Made Easy: 7 Steps to Shape Your Budget, recommends that family members over 18 participate in a Secret Santa-style exchange. Sites like Elfster let the giftee make wish lists and answer your (anonymous!) questions.
2. Budget first. Some parents plan around the big-ticket items their kids want, even if it means digging into savings or racking up debt. It should be the other way around: Set your budget, and then determine what you can afford to give.
3. Check the forums on FatWallet. Seto’s favorite forum for freebies and discounts is popular among couponing bloggers looking for off-the-radar holiday deals.
4. Stock up on baking ingredients. Holiday staples like cake mixes, sugar, marshmallows and more go on sale in November. Check out Seto’s handy guide to year-round grocery store sales.
5. Earn points towards fuel. Melissa Jennings and Shelley King of Stockpiling Moms like grocery chain Kroger for its rewards program. Members earn 1 point for every dollar spent, adding up to discounts of 10 to 30 cents off per gallon at Kroger fuel centers—an excellent perk if you’ll be road-tripping to visit family during the season.
6. Load the Ibotta app. When Jennings pulls into the parking lot at Kroger, she spends a few minutes on her phone loading coupons onto her rewards card using the store’s app. When she returns, she scans her receipt using Ibotta, a mobile app that finds rebates and issues cash back (via PayPal or transfer) automatically.
8. Or buy gift cards at a discount. Give them as gifts or use them to help you save even more money while shopping or driving (with gas station cards from BP, Exxon Mobile and more). Some sites also offer digital versions, sent automatically over email, for online shopping.
10. Sign up for rewards programs. Kohl’s has a new rewards program that gives customers a point for every dollar spent—earn a $5 off coupon for every 100 points.
11. Stack coupons and offers. Jennings and King shop Kohl’s during sales and match those already-discounted prices with coupons and rewards offers, then pay for it all using a Kohl’s credit card. Jennings calls this stacking technique the “trifecta of savings,” but cautions that Kohl’s is the only store she recommends having a credit card for. “As a cardholder you get coupons of 10, 15, 20 and 30 percent off mailed to you throughout the year,” says Jennings. Just be sure to pay the balance on time—otherwise interest rates negate the savings.
12. Shop online in private or incognito mode. Did you know that online price discrimination is perfectly legal? A recent Northeastern University study study found that search history, browser, the type of device you’re on, and your approximate zip code (via your IP address) can affect the price you see onscreen. Even your preferences and patterns, saved through data in cookies, influence price. According to consumer advisor Clark Howard, shoppers can get the best deals by opening a private window: In your browser’s settings, select “New Private Window” or “New Incognito Window.”
13. Sign up for Ebates. The cash back/rebate site gives you up to 40 percent back at more than 1,800 online stores including Groupon, Snapfish and select Amazon stores. Just login to Ebates and go to the retailer’s site from there.
14. Download PriceBlink. This browser add-on automatically scans competitors for the lowest price and shipping deals.
15. Find promo codes. Before you click “check out” always search for discount codes, says Jennings. A quick peek at RetailMeNot or a search engine (try “store name + coupon”) can save a nice chunk of change.
16. Get Black Friday deals now. Major retailers are already offering day-after-Thanksgiving-worthy deals online. Target and Best Buy have free shipping with no minimum order, and Walmart orders of $50 or more ship free as well. Amazon is counting down to Black Friday with new deals every day.
17. Ask for a price adjustment. Nothing induces buyer’s remorse like seeing the expensive gift you bought last weekend go on sale today. Not to fear: Amazon, Costco, Target and more give partial refunds on items that went on sale within seven to 15 days of purchase. Additionally, the app Paribus helps sniff out price drops and automatically issues refunds (but note that it does retain 25 percent as a service fee).
19. Make a Black Friday game plan. “You have to have plan of attack or you’re not going to be successful,” says Jennings, who finishes her Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving and uses Black Friday to score deals on big-ticket items for her home. Invite a friend or relative: You can spend time together and make the experience less overwhelming. Have one person hold a place in line while the other does the shopping. (Be sure to note which stores will not open on Thanksgiving this year, plus the major retailer that won’t participate in Black Friday at all.)
20. Give an experience. Research suggests that we get longer-lasting happiness from experiencing new adventures and learning new skills than we do from material objects. Consider giving a discounted activity—a photography class, local festival admission, or beer-brewing course, for example—from Groupon or Living Social.
21. Book cheaper flights using hidden city ticketing. Maybe you want to fly from Orlando to to Charlotte to visit family this Christmas, but the tickets are prohibitively expensive. Yet there may be a cheap flight from Orlando to Baltimore with a layover in Charlotte. With “hidden city ticketing” you’d book that latter flight but not get back on the plane once in Charlotte. Sites like SkipLagged andCleverLayover take the guesswork out of finding these deals. Note: To make this work you’ll need to book just one way at a time and only bring carry-on luggage, according to consumer advisor Clark Howard.
22. Send Christmas postcards. They require less postage than traditional cards!
23. Ship your gifts. If you’re flying to visit family this Christmas, consider shipping gifts ahead of time, and avoid pricey checked baggage fees. Take advantage of various retailers’ free shipping offers (warn recipients not to open them yet!) or send books, DVDs, and CDs super cheap via USPS media mail.
24. Make your own decorations. Check out our handy guide to DIY ornaments and decor. (Bonus: They make great gifts, too!)
25. Get a jump on next year. That’s right: Jennings and King begin shopping the day after Christmas for the following year’s holiday season. It’s never too early to get started!