Make a list: Early start can ease pain of holiday shopping

Planning ahead isn't always easy, particularly when it comes to holiday shopping. But this year, almost 40 percent of U.S. consumers started holiday shopping well before Nov. 1, according to a survey from Ipsos Public Affairs and RetailMeNot.

Fee-free layaway programs that let consumers shop with cash instead of credit and reservation programs that allow shoppers to reserve hot items have already led to shortages in toys, small appliances and apparel.

What else can you do to make the most of early holiday shopping? Follow advice from the pros.

Make decisions in advance

Josh Elledge, founder of SavingsAngel.com, a consumer couponing site, says don't change your game plan when you walk in the store. "Everything is designed in a retail environment to drive up sales," he said. "If we make decisions ahead of time, we can make rational decisions." That includes making a list and setting a budget for the items you need to buy as well as researching the retailers that carry those items.

Always comparison shop

Starting early doesn't mean losing out on major deals. "Consumers should really check out comparison shopping sites such as PriceGrabber.com," Hoyt said. But don't stop there. Next, visit a site like RetailMeNot.com to find a coupon or code that will bring the total cost lower. You don't want the lowest price; you want the lowest total cost.

Use year-round freebies

Stephanie Nelson, aka Coupon Mom, suggests stocking up on free deals and bargains throughout the year to use as practical, inexpensive holiday gifts. Battery-powered toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and aftershave, and cosmetics make great stocking stuffers for kids, men and women, respectively, Elledge said. These items can be purchased anytime at little or no cost with coupons.

Use store layaway programs

Experts agree, taking advantage of fee-free layaway makes sense because it allows you to spread the cost over time. Some stores will match price drops for items in layaway. Kmart, for example, will match internal price reductions for seven days and will ship items to your home when layaway is paid. Be sure you understand each store's policies and don't buy more than you planned simply because you have more time to pay.

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