13 Ways to Spend Less Over the Holidays

Grinch-time came early last year: By early December, more than a quarter of American shoppers had already outspent their gift budget, according to a survey from America's Research Group. Nothing saps joy like credit card dread, so this year things have to be different--and they can be. We calculated that if you use all the rebates, tools, and strategies below, you could save over $500 on your season's celebration. Ho, ho, ho! Consider that our little gift to you. By Kate Ashford, REDBOOK.

Stalk a lower price.
Know exactly what you want to buy but aren't finding it at a cost you can live with? Visit google.com/alerts and, in quotes, enter the product's name followed by the minimum price and the maximum price you'll pay, separated by two periods. (It looks like this: "Sony Handycam HDR-CX190 $1..$250.") Hit "Create Alert." Now, if a price pops up on that item that's under $250, you'll get an email.

Fill your pantry in advance.
Beginning in late fall, bargains start appearing on guest-worthy food and drink such as chips, rolls, soda, mixers, and wine by the case. "We bake a lot during the holidays," says Kelly Hancock, author of Saving Savvy, "so when supplies go on sale--flour, sugar, chocolate-chip morsels, canned pumpkin--I stock up." She also watches the meat aisle for pork or beef tenderloin, her traditional Christmas main dish. If there's a great deal in November, she just throws the meat in the freezer.

Shop with a list.

Without a game plan, it's easy to be tempted by cute stocking stuffers or that perfect thing for a random someone. "Research has shown that on average, people spend more when they're shopping without a list," says Deborah Mitchell, a clinical professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University in Columbus. "You don't want to be out there reacting to sales like a Ping-Pong ball." So make a list of everyone you'll gift this season, including neighbors, teachers, and family friends, and set a spending limit for each one.

Related: 100 Gifts Under $50 for Everyone on Your List

Wield your smartphone.

Free apps such as RedLaser and ShopSavvy can scan a product's bar code and search for a lower price, both online and at nearby stores. One caveat: They're best for comparing electronics, books, and games, says Heather Wheeler, cofounder of thekrazycouponlady.com; they're less useful if you're looking for sweaters or browsing the wares in little boutiques.

Earn dollars for spending.
If you could make money shopping, wouldn't you? Thought so. That's what makes sites like Ebates, Swagbucks.com, and ShopAtHome.com so genius. Go through their home pages to access your favorite retailers' websites, and for every buck you spend, you'll earn points or cash. "I use Ebates every time I shop online," says Valerie Lopez, 32, of North Andover, MA. "In two years, I've probably gotten back $300 to $400." Feeling generous? Try igive.com, which sends your savings to a charity of your choice.

Show your loyalty.
If you haven't "liked" your fave retailers and brands on Facebook and followed them on Twitter, do so. They'll often reward you by offering secret sales and promo codes you won't hear about elsewhere. (These tend to start a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, so jump on it now.) This is a good time to accept newsletters, too. "There really are deals to be had exclusively," says Teri Gault, founder of the savings website thegrocerygame.com. "For example, coffeesofhawaii.com had a link to a sale page you couldn't get to from anywhere else on the site." And some sites (like H&M's) give you a coupon just for signing up. You can always cancel later.

Related: 100 Cute, Affordable Winter Accessories

Haggle for your tree.
"Seasonal items represent one of the best opportunities to negotiate on price, and real Christmas trees are no exception," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. "Look for any imperfections and ask for a price reduction." If you're willing to hold off on the trimming party, you can also get a great deal in mid-December, when local providers are trying to off-load their extras. Says Woroch: "Think of it as a couple extra weeks without pine needles!"

Shop craft sites.
"I love etsy.com for knockoff pieces," says Jeanine Boiko, 41, of Wantagh, NY. "I just bought a $35 bubble necklace from a vendor that looks like one that J.Crew sells for $150. Only I know it's not the real thing." Your stylish best friend will thank you.

Land a seasonal job -- and a discount.
If you can sign on for a few weeks at your favorite retailer, you'll earn pocket money you can put toward holiday expenses and get a hefty in-store discount. "In the past, it's really helped, because the discount is anywhere from 20 to 40 percent," says Valerie Lopez, who has held seasonal spots at Pottery Barn and Gap. "One season I just worked every Saturday." You may qualify with as little as one day a week or 10 to 15 hours over a couple of days.

Related: The Best Celeb Hairstyles for Every Length

Check before you click.
When buying online, make it a habit to search for promotional codes before you hit "Submit." You might wind up with free shipping or 10 percent off your purchase. "I always Google for a promo code," Gault says. "I usually find one on retailmenot.com." Search for the retailer and the words promo code, coupon code, or discount code.

Buy gift sets -- then break them up.
Who said those six scented candles have to stay together? Take advantage of economies of scale by purchasing a set--three mugs, two blankets, eight soaps--and then splitting it up to make gifts or stocking stuffers for different people. (You can rewrap each one individually in beautiful tissue paper to dress it up.)

Make a few presents.
A pretty plate of cookies or homemade fudge is a great, unique item for your "small-gift" crowd (think: your kids' coaches). One idea from Mary Hunt, author of Debt-Proof Your Christmas: Fill a nice glass canning jar with the dry ingredients for, say, a chocolate-chip cookie recipe, pouring them in one by one and packing them tightly so they form layers. Embellish with twine, a ribbon, or fabric, and attach a tag with the recipe instructions. "People love this idea," Hunt says. "They don't have to worry about fit, they don't have to dust it, and it's always the right color."

Shop (and mail) early.

The sooner you get your presents purchased, the less you'll pay in express shipping later in the season. (Plus, think of the stress you'll avoid!) If you're not a holiday early bird, take advantage of Free Shipping Day on December 17, when many major retailers offer guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve. (See freeshippingday.com for details.)

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