Holiday shopping (part 1): beware of bargains

This is the first in a three-part series to help you get ready for Black Friday and shopping throughout the holiday season.

Original Flickr photo by denipet.

I used to be a huge Black Friday shopper, getting all of my holiday shopping done in one long, exciting and exhausting day. I was buying candles, bath products, ornaments and trinkets for everyone I knew and was so pleased with myself for getting a deal. But where's the deal in buying more than we need? Impulse buys end up as clutter in someone’s house, or worse, re-gifted.

I’m not here to rain on your Black Friday shopaganza. I understand how fun it can be to spend all day getting seemingly endless bargains. And there are certainly good deals to be had if you know exactly what you want -- maybe that Kitchenaid stand mixer you have been lusting over or a new camera. In that instance, scouring the ads or shopping online might save you a ton. Like everyone else, I'll be shopping (online) for gifts hoping to get free shipping and other discounts.

But this only works if you stay focused and don't get distracted by the holiday music, red sale signs, massive displays and marketing ploys designed to break your budget. I recently read the book Cheap: the high cost of discount culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, which points out that in a culture where we buy everything on discount, we pay a hefty price: freedom of choice, the environment, workers rights to good jobs and wages and quality craftsmanship. The effect on our pocketbook is just as bad -- if these deals are so good, then why are we all in debt? 

The first thing to consider when you are shopping is do you need it or even want it? The thing is, most of us don't need a home paraffin wax spa, an electric face scrubbing brush or a singing wall fish. Maybe we want it, but more likely, we just think we want it in that moment of purchase decision. Odds are, a year from the purchase, we’ll be tossing out that light up Christmas tie and that super cute martini glass with the shoes all over it to make room for more stuff. Not good for our well being, our wallets or the environment. Stick to the rule of asking yourself two questions before you purchase: “Do I really need or even want it?” and “Will it still be wonderful to have years from now?” If the answer is "yes," then by all means, head to the register.

The book also reminded me of sales tactics that I had first learned about in my college marketing classes. Here are some of the tricks marketers use to get you to buy impulsively. Keep them in mind as you're shopping the holiday sales.

  • Faux discounts. Retailers mark up the “regular price” of an item and slap on a sale sticker to make you think you are getting an expensive item for much less. For example, you see a sweater on sale for $29. When you look at the tag, you see it is worth a "regular price" of $49, so you think you are getting a deal. Really, the sweater was only ever worth $29 and you’re getting taken. Watch out, Kohl’s is the worst offender for this tactic. Any day of the year, go into Kohl’s shoe section and take a look. Every shoe is “on sale” every day, yet the same price as other department stores.
  • Quantity discounts. “Buy 3, Get 2 Free.” Do you really need three, let alone four or five of the same sweater, candle, ornament, etc? You probably only needed one or two and are standing in the store trying to justify who you can give the other items to. Not only are you spending more because you are buying more than you need, your friend or family member is getting a gift that you picked up out of price convenience rather than because it's suited for their personality.
  • Limited time offers. "Doorbusters – Arrive early and save before it's too late." This will get you impulse buying without the luxury of shopping around and comparing prices at other stores. A $19 DVD player is a steal for someone who needs a DVD player. But if you are just buying it for the price or to replace something that already works fine, you’re just spending $19 for no good reason. Retailers don't want to give you time to figure this out. They want you buying on impulse.

So, now you know what not to do for Black Friday and holiday shopping. But, what to do? For starters, plot out a list of exactly what you want to buy and how much you can spend and stick to it. Also, buy less. Remember, mass consumption isn’t green, and it just causes stress. Consider saving money and time by suggesting to your family and friends that you skip exchanging gifts and spend time together instead. Or maybe you can make each other gifts or buy each other second-hand gifts from the thrift store (that can be just as fun to hunt for). Be smart shopping, and you'll still have fun without experiencing post-holiday buyer's remorse when you get your January credit card statement.

Join me back here Saturday, and I'll continue with Part Two of this Black Friday and holiday shopping series. I promise to lighten the mood and get you in the holiday spirit. I’ll post my favorite holiday eco-gift picks straight from my very own wishlist. And later in Part Three, I'll suggest even more useful gift ideas to satisfy everyone on your gift list. In the meantime, feel free to share your own shopping tips in the comments!

Chel Rogersonbudget