'Tis the season to be jolly—though you may lose your merry measure once you start thinking about your holiday gift budget. Americans are feeling the pinch this year, it seems. Based on a survey of consumers nationwide, accounting firm PwC forecasts that U.S. households will spend $684 on average this year, down 7% from $735 in 2013. Respondents cited stagnating wages, rising costs of living, and limited disposable income as reasons for pulling back.
“This is an ‘every dollar counts’ holiday season,” says Thom Blischok, chief retail strategist at Strategy&, a unit of PwC. As a result, he adds, “retailers are going to be very aggressive in trying to entice customers to spend more.”
That will be especially true online, though the promotions may not be all that they seem. “At this time of year, sales and marketing ploys can make prices look really good, even when they’re not,” says Brent Shelton, online shopping expert at FatWallet.com. Since you’re likely to spend around 40% of your holiday budget online—at least according to a recent Deloitte poll—you’ll want to be strategic with your dot-commerce. Using a combination of the tricks that follow will help you get more for your holiday dollars so that you can give without feeling Grinchy.
Get the Lowest Base Price
“The most obvious way to save on holiday shopping is to avoid impulse buys,” says Shelton. So start by making a list of the gifts you know you want to buy. Then comparison-shop with InvisibleHand a browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari that automatically scours the web for the lowest price on any item you’re looking at. Also set up email alerts at TrackIf.com, which lets you know when an item’s price drops. You can search products on the site or get a browser plug-in (for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox) that also shows the three-month price history of any product on any retailer’s site as you’re viewing it.
Knowing the price history of a product can help you cut through some of the “buy now!” noise and decide when to pull the trigger. For example, Best Buy recently offered Beats by Dr. Dre Pro over-the-ear headphones for $316. TrackIf’s price-history tool showed that the highest price had been $400 and the lowest was $360. In context, $316 looks like a good deal. Of course, nothing is free: The companies offering these tools get a percentage of the sales made using them. So know that they have a vested interest in getting you to spend, and vow to stick to your list.
Go Through the Right Door
Websites like Ebates.com, FatWallet.com, and TopCashback.com offer cash back for shopping certain retailers so long as you enter those online stores via the cash-back portal. Recently, FatWallet offered 2% back at Kohl’s; TopCashback was paying 6% on certain Amazon purchases. The best part about these sites is that you can also add coupon codes and other discounts to your purchases, says Kristin Cook, managing editor of BensBargains.com. These sites’ agreements with retailers rotate. So check a few to see which is offering the best payout for where you’re shopping.
You may have access to similar offers through your credit cards. Discover, for example, has hundreds of retailers in its ShopDiscover program, which offers 5% to 15% cash back if you click through Discover’s site to the retailer. Recently you could get $15 off purchases of $150 plus 10% cash back at Sharper Image, in addition to the card’s normal rewards. See if your issuer offers a shopping portal, and if so, add it to the rotation of rebate sites to check.
Always Nab the Best Coupons
You know that you should go to sites like RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com to search for coupon codes before making any purchase. But sometimes fatigue sets in after you try five or six codes that don’t work, and sometimes you simply forget to check at all, right? That’s why the smartest shoppers automate their coupon clipping, says Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com. He advises installing Honey, a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that tracks coupon codes for hundreds of retailers and applies the highest value one to your cart at checkout. CouponFollow.com’s Coupons at Checkout extension—available for Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and IE at couponfollow.com/checkout—works similarly.
To find some of the best unpublished codes and private sales, you might also sign up for email lists or loyalty cards from the stores and brands you know you’ll shop this holiday. “A lot of places will invite everyone on the email list to a sale not otherwise advertised,” says Cook of BensBargains.com. Case in point: Sunglass Hut recently offered an extra 40% off on certain styles, but only those on the email list got into the sale. Also, you might follow the brands and retailers you’re planning to buy from on Facebook and Twitter, says Mark LoCastro of DealNews.com. Cole Haan, for example, recently tweeted a 30% friends-and-family discount. Just be aware that discounts through these channels tend to be better because of what you give up: your contact info and personal data, which retailers will use to market to you in the future.
Pick the Right Kind of Plastic
If you’re not going through a specific credit card’s shopping portal, choose the card to use based on the rewards you’ll get. Two of MONEY’s Best Credit Cards of 2014 are particularly profitable for holiday shoppers—and neither has an annual fee. Chase Freedom gives a hefty 5% cash back on department stores and at Zappos.com and Amazon through the end of the year; Discover It pays 5% on online shopping and department stores for the same period. Just pay the bill off on time so that interest charges don’t erase the rewards.
Another smart way to pay: with a gift card bought at a discount from the secondary market. At aggregator GiftCardGranny.com, you can shop for cards that are as much as 20% off the value of the card.
Save on Shipping
Retailers are generally raising the minimum you need to spend to qualify for free shipping, but there are still ways to avoid paying for delivery. Target, for example, is waiving shipping fees on all orders through Dec. 20. And there may be more promos like this during the competitive holiday season. Look for codes at FreeShipping.org.
See if your favorite retailer will give you a break on shipping if you check out through its mobile app (as Tory Burch and Sierra Trading Post do) or if you join the loyalty program (like Best Buy and Sperry Top-Sider do). Also, know that if you have an American Express card, you can get a membership to ShopRunner—which offers free two-day shipping from more than 100 e-tailers and normally costs $79—for free.
Try for a Last-Ditch Deal
Don’t hit that purchase button just yet! Load up your cart, start the checkout process by entering your credit card and shipping info, and then close your window. “Retailers hate this,” says LoCastro. Desperate to convert potential sales into actual ones, stores will often send emails with additional discounts to entice those who have not finalized a purchase to do so. “Of course, this works only if you’re not in a rush,” says LoCastro. “But it works especially well if you’re spending a lot. They want that sale.”
Didn’t work or don’t have time to wait? Before you finish checking out, ping a customer-service rep through live chat or by phone. “Ask if they can offer you free shipping or a discount,” says James of Rather-Be-Shopping.com, who has had luck with this strategy at Foot Locker, J. Jill, Lands’ End, and Shutterfly. “Say, ‘I really want to finish my order, but this is a little more than I can spend.’ It never hurts to ask.”
Get an Adjustment
Save your receipts and don’t turn off the price alerts you set through TrackIf.com. Some retailers—including Target.com—will give you a price adjustment if the price drops after you buy. And if the site won’t do it, the credit card you used might; Citi Price Rewind and any Discover or MasterCard offer price-protection programs. Check your card’s terms. Discover will give you the refund for any price change within 90 days, so you could benefit from deep after-Christmas discounts. That should make your new year a little happier.