The annual holiday gauntlet run is almost upon us. People all over will be scouring the shopping malls, websites and catalogs for that perfect gift. This year, take advantage of some useful tools and a little pre-thought that may help you avoid some of these common holiday blunders. (Learn more about avoiding the worst vendor ploys this holiday season, read Sneaky Strategies That Fuel Overspending.)

  1. Paying too much - or anything – for shipping!
    Amazon and other online retailers will often leave the shipping off the bill come holiday time, especially if you make a bunch of orders together at once. But now it's getting even easier to avoid shipping costs thanks to websites like pricegrabber.com. They have a link that allows you to search for products that all have zero shipping, which is usually standard ground via UPS or Fedex. If you need something faster than that, you'll need to pay up.

    And whenever possible, look to see if an item you're seeing online can't be purchased at a local brick & mortar shop on your next shopping trip. After all, if you're going to be there anyway, there's no extra gas costs.

    Finally, when sending products out, don't wait until the last minute. Shipping costs go up exponentially if you need to get it there in a few days versus seven to 10 days.

  2. Not Finding the Best Price
    It seems that most people commit this blunder not for lack of trying, but by not knowing where to look. For technology-related products, check out a site like Cnet.com which does a fantastic job of showing the real-time prices offered by retailers on a given product. And sites like the aforementioned pricegrabber.com offer a similar feature on everything from apparel to jewelry to sporting goods.

    These sites not only show you who has it the cheapest, but provide ratings on the retailer. There's also a community of thousands just like you who rate their experiences, so if you see a top rating on a company – even if you've never heard of it – you're probably safe to give them a go this year.

    As to whether you should start shopping on Black Friday or wait until the last two weeks, you may have memories of magical "50% off" sales in the stores last year in late December. The retail world was caught quite off guard last year as the recession swooped in from out of nowhere; as a result, inventories were high and many of those sales were desperate attempts to clear out an overabundance of goods come year end. This year, companies have been keeping it lean, so don't expect to see a repeat of last year. If you see a good early sale, take advantage, or you run the risk of a store being out of your list item later on.

  3. Spending the Same on Everyone
    The more times we've made it through the holiday fray, the more likely we are to have spent the "same amount" on each person, especially when kids are involved. I'm tempted to say that we can all have a free pass on that in such a turbulent economic year, but in a more productive attempt at advice, I'll warn to not pick up extra "last minute" gifts for someone to even out the number of gifts if you've spent more on one particular item.

    Get people thoughtful gifts and nobody will feel slighted – young or old.

  4. Buying Gifts that Require Further Spending
    Have you ever gotten a gift that you needed to spend more money on to make useful? It can be mildly frustrating, especially in such a frugal environment. Don't get someone a $25 gift certificate to Best Buy unless you know they are a music or movie buff, or can make use of a smaller ticket item. If someone you know loves to shop at Home Depot, then a modest gift certificate can help them along on a bigger purchase, but in general, be mindful of what can be purchased in a store with the gift certificate that you give.

    Also, think ahead about the spending ability of the person receiving your gift. It might be incredibly thoughtful to give a new driver to your favorite golf lover, but their temptation to take it out for a spin may conflict with their desire to not drop $100 at the golf course.

Parting Thoughts
Survey after survey has the holidays ranking as one of the most stressful times of the year. While we can't simply wish this fact away, 2009 seems like a great year to try and re-route that part of our wiring. Take more joy in the simple pleasures of the season – it shouldn't be a rat race, a competition, or a catalyst for the antacid. Avoiding these common blunders is a great way to get off to a good start; the rest is up to you.

Learn more in Keep Holiday Debt From Snowballing and Avoid Overspending This Holiday Season.

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