Several things I did recently reminded me of the importance of planning ahead as the holiday shopping season rapidly approaches.
First, I spent $10.25 to mail a birthday present to my niece: a large book full of photographs of horses. If I had planned ahead, I could have saved a little money by sending that book at the "media mail" rate offered by the Postal Service, which requires a lengthy delivery time.
On the plus side, I learned that American Express was running a promotion where cardholders who registered online will receive a $25 statement credit if they spend at least that amount at a local business Nov. 26. Free money for me and revenue for local businesses. What a great deal.
The American Express promotion was limited to the first 200,000 cardholders who signed up, so it may no longer be available, but there surely will be other offers.
And looking for ways to save on holiday shopping will be important to most people this year.
An annual survey conducted by Visa found that 31 percent of people expect to have less to spend on gifts, while just 7 percent planned to spend more than they did last year.
Another survey by research and consulting organization YouGov found a similar result, saying that 32 percent of households expect to cut their holiday season gift budgets to $451 from $521 in 2010.
Added expenses such as shipping costs can chew up a limited gift budget. If you ship gifts that are going to the same address in a single package, rather than individually, you can save some money, and if you don't wait until the last minute, you'll avoid high fees for rush delivery.
If you do some of your shopping online, pay close attention to shipping and handling charges, which can dramatically inflate the price. Free shipping deals are common if you look for them, and paying for gift wrapping might be a good deal if the alternative is having an item shipped to yourself, then wrapping and mailing it.
If you plan to pay for purchases with credit cards, keep an eye out for promotions that you may have to register for. Credit-card companies are increasingly offering deals that you only get if you sign up.
For example, Citi Dividend cardholders get 5 percent cash back on purchases at department, clothing and electronics stores through Dec. 31, but only if they register for the deal.
Credit cards can be a good choice for gift shopping because many of them offer price protection, free extended warranties and even replacement of items that are broken or stolen. Of course, if you don't pay the credit-card bill on time and in full, you'll end up paying interest charges, which amounts to taking out a high-interest loan to do your gift shopping.
If you plan on giving gift cards as presents, remember that you often can buy them at discounts to the face value at websites where people re-sell them, such as plasticjungle.com and cardpool.com. Generally, gift cards for larger retailers such as Target sell at small discounts, cards for specialty stores and restaurants sell at larger discounts, and there's no shipping charge.
Of course, can you also buy discounted gift cards for your own use any time of the year.
A time-honored tip for keeping holiday shopping under control is to start with a list of the people you'll buy gifts for (including tips for the people who provide various services throughout the year) and create a budget.
Finally, while different families have different traditions, I've found that some of my relatives would rather not exchange gifts at all, or would prefer to limit the amount we spend. Agreeing ahead of time on gift limits and spending limits can reduce financial stress and gift-shopping anxiety.