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I’ve been converted: Why I’m now an early holiday shopper

Kristin McGrath

November 8, 2013

I have a friend (and don’t we all?) who always finishes her holiday shopping before the end of November. I often mocked her — and yet I wanted to be her. Sure, I’d make fun of her “Done with shopping! Good luck out there, procrastinators!” Facebook update on Thanksgiving weekend while I ate pie. But I always ended up eating my words while I was ordering gifts at the last minute and hoping they’d ship on time and trying to find parking at the mall on Dec. 24.

So this year, I decided to be my friend (instead of mock her) — and start my holiday shopping in September. It’s early November, and all my gifts are firmly decided — or already ordered. Turns out, this has saved me money, in addition to stress.

Here’s why I’m now an early-shopping convert:

Stress leads to expensive choices: When you head out at the last minute to complete your shopping, you get in the mindset of needing something, anything to put under the tree. That anxiety can lead to you putting something, anything in your cart, even if it’s more than you’d rather spend. In September, I made a list of all the people I’m buying gifts for. Over the next month or so, I jotted down ideas for gifts whenever they occurred to me. I then whittled down the list to the best ideas that were well within my budget.

That list became my game plan, and it’s a bit like having a shopping list when you hit the grocery store — which has long been a money-saving staple in the personal finance realm. As the blog Cash Cow Couple points out, having a list can prevent impulse buys and limit the amount of time you spend in the store, becoming ever more vulnerable to the sneaky signage that retailers use to get you to spend more.

There’s time to be creative and thrifty: When it’s days before the holiday party, you don’t have time to make a gift or even order one online. You’re limited to store-bought, ready-to-go stuff. This year, I’ve had plenty of time to put together a music compilation of local bands for a music fan on my list — and make a photo collage by hand.

You can make your purchases work for you: I’m getting close to my three-month deadline to spend $xxx to qualify for my new airline credit card’s sign-up bonus. The deadline is in mid-November, so the week before Dec. 25 would be too late. By moving up my shopping, I was able to use a couple larger purchases to make my sign-up bonus instead of scrambling to reach it by making unnecessary purchases.

There’s plenty of room to compare and crowd-source: By starting early, I’ve had plenty of time to comparison shop and make sure I got the best deal. Before buying someone a gift card to a day spa, I was able to read lots of online reviews and ask friends which local spas they recommended. I was also able to get multiple quotes for a custom-made gift and pick the most affordable one (which required three weeks for completion) — and not limit my options to the business that could get the job done the fastest.

So why do so many shoppers (including me for so many years) wait?

According to an October 2013 survey from consulting firm Accenture, 33 percent of shoppers do the bulk of their shopping in December (and 13 percent of those late shoppers start after Dec. 15). Being too busy to shop earlier was the most common reason late shoppers gave for their habits, followed by needing more time to save up for gifts. This December 2012 article from The Fiscal Times provides another reason: “Buy presents” is a vague goal, the type that tends to get put off. By making the goal specific (for example, “Buy Mom lilac-scented candles”), you’re more likely to accomplish it quickly. Perhaps that’s why the first step I took in my early-shopping goal (making a list) has helped me see it through.

It’s still early November, so it’s not too late to get an early start on holiday shopping. Let these tips and from personal finance bloggers help you:

Wise Bread’s Kentin Waits argues that there are still plenty of good deals to be had long before Black Friday.

Jackie at Fabulous & Frugal suggests creating a “holiday shopping” fund far in advance and then picking up items on sale throughout the year.

Frugal Rules proposes hitting garage sales and thrift stores for certain items on your list — including children’s toys. Kids won’t know the difference between brand new and used.

The Greenest Dollar points out that, if you take enough time to plan your gifts, you can not only save money, but help save the environment as well.

One Cent at a Time has a list of 101 inexpensive gifts that virtually anyone will like.

Financial Highway has some tips for using your cash-back credit cards to your advantage during holiday shopping.