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Shop smart this holiday season By Michael Rupured

Every year, the holiday shopping season seems to start a little earlier. To compete with online shopping options, brick and mortar retailers keep opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday morning. This year, the holiday shopping season will be well underway even before Thanksgiving dinner has been reduced to leftovers.

Are you ready? For serious bargain hunters, the sales the day after Thanksgiving really get the adrenaline going. To make the most of the big day, hardcore shoppers sort through a mountain of advertisements and go online to find the best prices. They plan to hit stores for time-specific sales and map out routes that keep to a minimum time spent in traffic or looking for a parking spot.

By the end of the day, these exhausted but happy shoppers sleep well knowing they got great deals on every purchase.

And then there's everybody else. Many avoid the chaos by shopping early or online. Others get caught up in the moment, joining the spending frenzy without so much as a shopping list.

While shopping smart is important every month, the stakes are especially high after Thanksgiving. Starting your holiday shopping early helps. But with a little forethought, even procrastinators can benefit from shopping smart.

Shopping smart means developing a sound spending plan for the holidays. Economic conditions are improving, but piling up a lot of holiday debt is a bad idea. Know how much money you can reasonably afford to spend. To avoid financial problems in 2013, limit your spending to the cash you have set aside for the season.

Think creatively. Belt-tightening is in, wasteful spending is out. Remember, it is the thought that counts. Homemade gifts, whether food, clothing or crafts, may be appreciated more than something purchased at the local, big box store. Gifts of time for baby-sitting, car-washing or house-cleaning may also be well-received.

Your holiday spending plan is not just about the gifts you plan to buy. Remember to include parties, greeting cards, charitable giving, clothes to wear to holiday functions and other things that make your holiday season joyful.

At the store, keep your spending plan and shopping list in hand. Think carefully about each and every purchase. Take your time; avoid deciding on an item in the spur of the moment. Think about your needs and the amount of money you have.

Use ads appearing in newspapers and mailboxes around Thanksgiving to plan your purchases. Compare offerings from different stores to find the best values. Once you decide on a particular item, compare features, quality, prices, charges for installation, delivery and service. Sometimes the cost to use and maintain an item makes selecting a more expensive model the cheaper option.

To conserve gasoline, avoid running from store to store. Instead, use the phone and Internet to find information. Particularly for gifts you need to send out of town, it is often much cheaper to order the desired items for direct shipment to the recipient.

Shopping online can also be an easy way to locate special or unique gifts, but it is important to be careful. Use a secure browser, shop with companies you know, and keep your passwords creative and private. Pay particular attention to shipping charges, and be sure to print out and keep records of your purchases.

Retailers have rolled out holiday items earlier than ever this year. Sales may also start earlier as retailers seek to clear out merchandise. That means plenty of bargains, but you will need to shop carefully to find them. As the holidays approach, many will slash prices so that the best deals may come later in the season. Waiting for last minute price cuts makes sense for items that are not in short supply.

Look in your newspaper classified ads for items, too. Buying person-to-person often saves money. Examine secondhand goods and electronics carefully. These items may have flaws or imperfections.

Bargains that sound too good to be true are usually just that. Expect to pay a fair and reasonable price for goods and services. Read labels, seals, tags and instruction booklets. Ask questions. Get the facts before you buy. Find out what is promised, who stands behind the promises and what you must do to benefit from any warranty. Return a purchase that is damaged, did not provide reasonable wear or otherwise did not live up to the guarantee.

Overspending can ruin the holidays and the months that follow. Shopping smart means planning ahead and sticking to your plan. Spending only as much as you can afford will make the holidays better for you and your family--even if they do not receive everything they wanted.

(Michael Rupured is a financial specialist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.)

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