Step 1: Start Now
"Or yesterday!" says Joe. Jesse points out that a number of stores are having sales already. We discovered that many department stores and electronics stores have begun markdowns, and other companies, like Barnes & Noble, will take 5 percent off if you preorder. Check the cashback page at Bing to shop sales and find online coupons.
Step 2: Make a Gift List
Be a proactive shopper, not a reactive shopper. "Start a list of the people's names you have to buy for, and write down a gift idea or at least a store that represents them," Joe says. That way, when you do start shopping—online or at the mall—you'll be thinking of the person first, not the gift.
For inspiration, you can look to O editors' picks, find presents grouped by personality on Gifts.com, check your friends' wish lists on Amazon.com, or get the whole family on Giftag.com to easily make and share lists.
Step 3: Know Your Limits
Ask yourself, "What is my budget for the holidays?" Then break the total down by person. Financial expert Suze Orman recommends taking a serious look at your finances to come up with that number: How much is your mortgage or rent? Do you have credit card or student loan debt? If you figure out your monthly expenses and compare that with your income, you'll have a better idea of what you can afford this holiday season.
Another tip is to narrow your list to as few stores as possible, says Donna Smallin, author of The One-Minute Organizer Plain and Simple. "If I'm shopping online, I'll get toys in one place, because the shipping will cost less,” she says. "Also, if you charge all holiday purchases to one credit card, you'll have a convenient record of exactly how much you spent."
One often overlooked shopping expense is transportation. "Carpool with a friend or a relative, make a day of it," Jesse says. "It's better to have someone to bounce ideas off, and you'll get it done together. "
Step 4: Comparison Shop Like a Demon
"Go online and search for gift ideas before you hit the pavement," Jesse says. You'll get an idea of what's easier (and cheaper) to buy online and know what you can only get at a store. "The beauty of shopping early is being able to compare," says Jesse, who found a gift for a $100 less than the store next door. Try PriceGrabber.com, BizRate.com and DealHack.com to compare online.