Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Watch Out for Black Friday, Cyber Monday: Having Holiday Shopping Smarts Will Pay Off in Time and Money

/PRNewswire/ -- Are you tired of the holidays yet? It's been a winter wonderland in most stores for weeks and prospective shoppers are being bombarded with special deals and offers earlier and more frequently than in past seasons. Retailers are trying to get more consumers in the stores than last year, so deals aren't just happening on one day.

With the increased competition for still limited dollars, the Illinois CPA Society says being aware of the tactics used to lure shoppers will help you spend your time and money wisely. Use this broader shopping season to your advantage – have a strategy, compare prices and stick to a budget. Here's what you'll need to watch out for:

* Black Friday "Month." No longer is there one day designated for kicking off the holiday season. Some stores have already started touting "Black Friday" sales; others will be open on Thanksgiving Day to offer Black Thursday night deals. Shopping can be fun and entertaining, but don't take every opportunity to shop and don't make impulse purchases (especially for yourself).
* Return Policies. If you're shopping early, make sure to read the fine print. Many stores have strict new return policies, especially during the holiday season. If a store won't allow anything to be returned after 30 days, you may want to hold off on purchasing until closer to the date you plan to give it to the recipient. Get gift receipts and keep in mind personal information may be requested on returns. Stores are being more restrictive on return policies and keeping close tabs on return records to prevent fraud.
* Store Credit Cards. If you already have a card from your favorite retailer, see if there are special discounts on Black Friday and the surrounding days. If you're making a large purchase, it may be worth it to open a card for the day, get the discount and immediately pay off the balance. Think twice about opening any new accounts if you can't pay off the balance; they often come with steep interest rates and your holiday savings will be eaten away in finance charges.
* Rebates. Essentially, rebates are big coupons. Spend the money now, but get it back later. The key is to be diligent about sending them in. Make sure you have receipts and any other proofs of purchase needed to process the rebate. Keep copies of these items since rebate submissions can be lost. Note the date you mail the rebate and read the fine print, especially about the dates for submitting the rebate and the time frame you have to purchase the rebate item. Although you're not necessarily saving money immediately upon purchase, think of a rebate as a gift to yourself come January – when the credit card bill is actually due.
* Cyber Monday/Online Shopping. Retailers are making greater use of email, mobile phone apps and texts. They want shopping to be as easy and convenient as possible so you spend as much as possible. Don't get carried away and think before you click. Use those special offers you get through email alerts, but be choosy in giving out contact information so you're not inundated with too many messages. Make sure personal information, like a credit card number, is provided only on secure sites.
* Bank Credit Cards. Choosing your card wisely could net savings and rewards; using too many cards can leave you in deeper credit card debt. See which cards have the best cash back or bonus point offers, which stores and purchases they apply to, and if there are any limits or restrictions.
* Gift Cards. There's good news and bad news with gift cards. Thanks to new government rules, gift cards must remain valid for at least five years from the purchase date. No fees can be charged for cards that haven't been used in the past 12 months. However, cards won't need to show the expiration date and fee policy information until the end of January. You may also be out of luck if the card's lost or stolen; some cards may also still have inactivity fees. And always watch out for the activation fee on some cards – they effectively lessen the total card value.

According to the Illinois CPA Society, the bottom line is making sure you have a game plan. Ask yourself how you're going to pay for all of this and what amount you're budgeting for the holidays. And do you have a list? Sticking to a list will help keep your spending on budget. If you can, try to make all of your purchases using cash or layaway to keep your post-holiday bills low. Be a smart shopper. It's not necessarily a deal just because the store says so, and it's not a deal if you don't need it or it's more than you want to spend.

If you're looking for a little help with your finances, you can find local deals, finance definitions and tips on managing your money on the Society's Twitter consumer resource, @thriftitude.

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