15 things every smart holiday shopper knows

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Although buying gifts is not the most important part of celebrating the holidays with your loved ones, it is an inevitable part of the season and something that can add up very quickly. One should take care to be thoughtful as well as savvy when holiday shopping. Make the right strategic and financial moves, and you'll find yourself becoming the best holiday guest ever or at least someone's favorite relative. Before you set out to take on the holiday shopping crowd, make sure you're familiar with these 15 smart tips.

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Set a budget

The most important thing you need to do when beginning your holiday shopping is set an overall budget. Within that budget, figure out who you need to buy gifts for and how much you would like to allocate for each gift. Don't forget to account for your other upcoming expenses when figuring out how much you can afford to spend on gifts, such as your holiday travel plans, groceries and any dinner or party expenses.

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Write a list and stick to it

The best way to maintain your budget is to write out a specific list of who you're shopping for and what you intend to get them. For both budgetary reasons and organization's sake, keep track of the gifts you need to buy and the ones you've already purchased.

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Social media is your friend

Figuring out what to buy for your friends and family can be one of the trickiest parts of holiday shopping, but social media can serve as your cheat sheet. Check out what they've recently liked on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest to figure out what the person you're buying for has been into lately or even what specifically might be on their wishlist. Many brands and retailers also post about their deals and sales on their social media accounts, sometimes even offering exclusive savings to those who follow their pages.

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Shop for gifts year-round

The earlier you start shopping, the better, not only because it's smart to plan ahead, but also because then you can take advantage of sales and deals throughout the year. If you stay on the lookout for gifts for your loved ones, you'll have less to stress about once the holiday season rolls around.

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Map out your shopping sprees

Figure out exactly where you need to go in order to get what is on your list. Wandering aimlessly around the mall is the perfect way to waste time and money.

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Online shopping can save you from stress

Shopping online can save a lot of time. You don't have to travel to and from stores, fight your way through holiday crowds or wait in line. If you do your shopping online, keep shipping costs in mind, although many retailers offer free shipping for shoppers who spend over a certain amount.

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Order gifts last minute on Free Shipping Day

It's typically not a good idea to wait until the last minute to buy your holiday gifts, but every year in mid-December, major retailers like Walmart, Macy's, Best Buy, Target, Sephora and 1,000 more participate in Free Shipping Day. Online retailers that don't typically offer free shipping will do so in anticipation of holiday sales with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve. This year, Free Shipping Day is Dec. 14. 

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Avoid shopping on weekends

Try shopping on weekday evenings or during off-hours so that you can shop in peace without having to fight weekend crowds while trying to score the latest deals. 

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Avoid using a credit card when you can

It's easy to get carried away when holiday shopping and just put everything on your credit card, but that's not a trap you want to fall into. Don't spend money you don't have and risk hurting your credit score unless you're sure you'll be able to pay off the card at the end of the month. Otherwise, try to pay with debit or cash when you can. 

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Use the right credit card when you can't

Sometimes you will have to use credit cards, and if you do, it's a good idea to get strategic and use the card that give you the most rewards. Cash-back credit cards often provide 1-2% cash back on all purchases, with even more cash back on purchases such as groceries or gas. This way, you're making money as you spend. Just make sure to use those rewards before they go to waste.

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It's better to wait to buy the latest electronics

It's easy to get excited about the latest electronic products, such as smartphones, laptops and gaming systems. However, you can save quite a bit by waiting a year or two until the hype dies down around the latest tech toy.

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Loyalty cards are worth it

Brand loyalty is a big deal to retailers, and as a result, you'll find many stores have loyalty programs and emails with sign-up offers and special member savings. These are often free to sign up for, and they can get you some great savings with your holiday shopping.

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Head to the back of the store

One of the many secrets of shopping malls and stores is that clearance and sales items tend to be located at the back of the store so that they are deliberately hard to find. Retailers are hoping that you'll be distracted by flashier so-called sales and trends closer to the entrance or as you make your way through the store. Deals in the back are also relatively less picked over since many shoppers don't even get to that area.

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Save your receipts

Holding on to receipts not only protects you in case you gift an unwanted or unneeded item, but it also allows you to exchange an item you've already bought if it goes on sale later in the shopping season. Many retailers will let you bring the gift back with proof of purchase so that you can receive the difference in price, or return the item and then repurchase it at the new sale price. 

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Pay attention to post-holiday sales

With so much merchandise going on the floors for the holiday season, a lot goes on sale once Christmas has passed. Retailers will be trying to move big-ticket items that they weren't able to sell. Seasonal decor, gift wrap and other holiday-related merchandise will also be available at a deep discount. By taking advantage of items on post-holiday clearance, you can buy things that are on your own list or for the next holiday season, all while saving quite a bit of money.

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