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Personal Finance > Five Tips
Smart holiday shopping
5 Tips: Avoid the debt hangover.
November 24, 2004: 7:18 PM EST
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Ah, the holidays, a time for parties, gifts -- and overspending.

While the average consumer expects to spend $702.03 over the holidays, just 4.5 percent more than last year, plenty of us will spend more than we can afford.

Are you worried about a debt hangover this holiday season? Here are 5 tips to help you shop smart.

1. Do the math.

Decide how much you can comfortably and realistically spend on everything for the holidays. When you're making the list, don't stretch and don't rely on the Christmas bonus you haven't yet been given.

Make a list of all the expenses you can conceivably think of, and not just gifts. There's also the cost of wrapping paper, cards, bows, gift bags, decorations, entertaining. If you're an online shopper, you'll have to pay shipping on the items you buy.

The bottom line is the costs can add up VERY quickly, so be prepared ahead of time.

If you're really worried you can't control your plastic habit, leave the credit cards at home and pay cash. Having limited resources at your disposal may force you to stick to your budget and will make it less likely you'll buy that extra gift for yourself or others.

2. Be an informed consumer.

Comparison shop before plunking down your hard-earned money. If you've got your heart set on a cashmere sweater for mom, price them ahead of time.

Can't afford to spend a day window shopping? Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, Macy's, Kohls and countless other nationwide chain stores retailers have Web sites where you can price gift items online before you schlep to the store only to suffer sticker shock. There are even Web sites where you can compare prices at online retailers.

Don't feel like trolling retailers' Web sites? At you can compare prices on a range of products including computers, electronics, clothing, books, goods for the home (and even wine). Yahoo! Shopping allows shoppers to compare prices on millions of items.

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Gerri Willis shares five tips on smart holiday shopping.

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If you decide to shop online, the FTC advises reading the seller's description of the product closely. Look for words like "refurbished," "previously owned" or "close-out" which may indicate that the product is in less-than-mint condition. They also caution that brand name items with prices that are too good to be true could be counterfeits.

It's a smart idea to keep records of your order. Write down the company's name, address, and phone number; the date of your order; a copy of your order form, if you're ordering by phone, a list of the items, stock codes and the order confirmation numbers.

3. The lowdown on shipping.

If you're ordering last-minute gift items for delivery before a particular date (like Christmas or Hanukkah), pay close attention to the fine print.

Many e-retailers like, and others have holiday shipping guidelines clearly explained on their Web sites.

On, for U.S. orders that say "usually ships within 24 hours," December 18th is last day to order items using standard shipping if you want them to arrive by Christmas. December 21st is the last day to order items using two-day shipping. There's less much less time if you're deadline is Hanukkah, which begins at sundown on December 7th.

At the last day to order is Monday, Nov. 29th if you're shipping via Standard Delivery. According to the FTC, retailers (traditional retailers and online retailers) are required to ship an order at the time the order is placed or within the time stated on their Web site. If a company doesn't promise a time, it must ship the order within 30 days after receiving it.

If the company is unable to ship your order within the promised time, it is required to say so and allow the consumer to agree to the delay or to cancel the order and receive a prompt refund.

4. Check refund and return policies.

Before buying a gift or placing an online order, consider the retailer's refund, return and exchange policy.

Can you return the item for a full refund if you're not satisfied? If you return an online purchase, are you on the hook for the reverse shipping costs or restocking fees? extends its return period for the holidays. The company says items shipped between November 1, 2004 and December 31, 2004 may be returned until January 31, 2005 for a full refund. They'll pay the return shipping cost if the return is a result of an error on their part. If the reason for the return isn't because of an error on Amazon's part, the cost of shipping will be deducted from your refund.

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Traditional retailers' return policies vary greatly. If you're unsure of the store's policy, be sure to inquire about it before you make your purchase.

If possible, get a gift receipt for the gift item you're buying. That little slip of paper make the return process much easier for the gift recipient if your gift doesn't fit or the recipient doesn't like the lime green striped cardigan you bought.

5. Be a procrastinator.

For many of you who are organized and get your holiday shopping done early, you may feel frustrated as retailers essentially reward procrastinators by slashing prices at the last minute.

If your pockets are a little shallower this year and you're worried you can't do it all on your modest budget, you may want to join the ranks of slowpokes and do your shopping late.

It may cost you more in time (check out lines can be long), patience and sanity but it could save you big in the end.

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also hosts CNNfn's Open House, weekdays from Noon to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to  Top of page

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