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December falls literally on the heels of Thanksgiving this holiday season so it behooves us savvy consumers to begin the think-ahead-shopping-for-gifts process immediately. I appreciate retailmenot.com – a site that's not only great for comparison shopping, but also presents a guide to get to the point of money exchanging hands. While I've spent the last two weekends decorating, wrapping, and baking, it's good to know that Retailmenot and I agree on specific early methods to make holiday shopping fast and easy without sending us and our credit cards to the poorhouse.

Forgo the crowds. As we all know, procrastination leads to stress. While I absolutely love this wonderful season, it's certainly full of stress; when I'm stressed, the magical time can pretty much become a downer. NO! I've learned over the years (and especially as I've gotten older) to ditch these demons by accomplishing my "chores" early enough to thoroughly enjoy every day of this festive month. For those of you who found themselves in the midst of 10,000 of their nearest and dearest on Black Friday, more power to you. I, on the other hand, cherish my sanity and safety so I avoid crowded stores, long lines and cantankerous shoppers. A good way to have a more peaceful experience is to head to quieter (maybe smaller) stores to take advantage of more sales staff.

Spread out spending. When we allot more time for shopping, we also have more time to look for those presents for which we've budgeted. Another thank you for the spending plan is once it's spread out, we don't need to fully rely on credit cards. We all realize just how effortless it is to run up those charges with their monstrous interest rates. Additionally, when purchasing over several weeks, write down each person on your list and the wish list cost we'd like to spend.

Try layaway. While I haven't used layaway in years, it's still an appropriate and ofttimes easy strategy. Most stores – especially brick and mortar – offer interest-free payment plans, too, to help our wallets stay fuller. What a great way to have our shopping done and paid for just in time to wrap the gifts!

some text Ellen Phillips

Save lots of steps. The beauty of online purchases can't be overlooked, particularly coupled with offers of free shipping. When shopping online, however, be certain to check returns information, just as you'd do when shopping at the mall. Also, while Amazon immediately comes to mind, don't forget the giant site doesn't necessarily always show the best prices; if exclusively buying online, be sure to check out eBay, Walmart, and specialty stores.

I must admit I'm not as practical as I used to be. For most of my adult life, when Thanksgiving rolled around, all gifts were bought and wrapped, Christmas cards addressed and stamped, and all my baking was completed and in the freezer. Unfortunately, while the last several years have seen the presents purchased and, perhaps, I've even cooked a casserole or two, Christmas cards sometimes have become Happy New Year notices, and exquisitely wrapped offerings have gone the way of much-simpler gift bags. On the other hand, I still try to achieve as much as possible to maintain that magical feeling for which no amount of hustle and bustle can spoil.

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.

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