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Bless For Less

Debt-free shopping strategies

The thoroughbreds were getting anxious behind the starting gates as they waited for the sound of the bell. Despite warm coats, their foreheads glistened with sweat even as their breath created small, frosty clouds in the cold morning air. They were warmed up from the trot in the parking lot and were ready to start the race.

In nervous anticipation, one filly rammed up against the barrier, and the ensuing commotion triggered a cacophony of whinnies from the other entries—each expressing her displeasure over the tension of the delay. These creatures were created to run, not wait!

Suddenly, mercifully, the gates finally gave way and the race was on. The contenders rushed forward in one accord. Mass chaos ensued while the champions clamored for first place. Without regard for the competition, they pushed and shoved to capture the lead position as they dashed down the sparkling, tiled corridors of Towne Plaza Mall. Yes, the mall.

The Christmas season opened at 6:00 A.M. and the mad holiday competition was on. Each woman raced the halls toward the largest department store. They were determined to be one of only fifty shoppers who would receive the prize—a limited-edition hand-blown glass ornament worth roughly $3.79.

There's a theory that suggests that the amount of holiday frustration in families increases proportionally to the amount of money you think you're going to spend over your holiday budget. It will take the average American consumer until next May to pay off this season's credit-card debt. Financial tension is one of those not-so-great gifts that keeps on giving—to you and your family.

But there's good news, you can decide to stop the insanity by making a few changes in the way your family shops for Christmas. This will provide relief from not only the financial pressures of the season, but it will help your family escape the frenetic pace of the holiday race. Consequently, your family will be able to celebrate the season in a more meaningful way.

Here are a few ideas that can help you sidestep the racetrack of Christmas chaos and gently gallop in pastures of peace.

Consumer Crazy

So how do you avoid the pressure to buy, buy, buy during the holiday season without becoming a hum-bugger? Statistics show that the sooner in the month people complete their holiday shopping, the less money they spend when compared to procrastinating friends. So purpose to get your shopping done early. The result will be less stress and more money. When gifts are purchased early, there will be less time spent in malls during the busiest time of the year. Studies show that less time spent in a mall translates into fewer impulse buys. Instead, this time of the year can be used to its full advantage—especially by shopping early-season sales.

A retailer's holiday season sales will make or break them for the entire year. In a sluggish economy a lower consumer index could spell disaster for retailers. But these facts can work to the consumer's advantage, especially on the biggest shopping day of the year—the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers frequently offer "loss-leaders" or selected products that are offered at less than the store's cost. They do this to get the customer to do the majority of their shopping in their store.

Think about it. If someone comes into the store to get the dirt-cheap $8 hand-held video games, a $99 bargain of a digital camera, and a low-priced $135 DVD player, then they're more likely to go ahead and buy full-priced decorations, wrapping supplies, and smaller gifts as well. The marketing department counts on this strategy but the wise shopper uses these sales to their advantage.

The Game Plan

Wise holiday shoppers need to develop their sales strategy long before they ever hit those retail doors. Here's a game plan designed to save time, stress, and money.

Thanksgiving Week

The Reason for the Season. This is really the most important aspect of giving gifts—the why of this season. It's good to remind ourselves that Christmas is about celebrating Christ's birth and expressing our love for him and those we love (partially by giving gifts). Other gifts of time, a listening ear, and acts of service are all ways we can show love to those in our community. For every material gift you give during this most wonderful time of the year, try also to give the gift of a smile, a kind word, or a note of encouragement.

Budget. Establish a holiday budget with your spouse and purpose not to accumulate credit-card debt. Let the rest of the family know that you are trying to be financially responsible stewards of God's resources by spending less than you make. Help your children establish a budget for their gifts, too.

List. While you're driving in the car to Grandma's house for dinner or waiting for your pecan pie to bake or standing in line at the post office, make a list of all the people you want to bless with a gift.

Check It Twice. Now go back to that list and determine which folks you would like to give a simple, inexpensive gift to (such as baked goods or a card with a family picture). Try to whittle down the list and remember that when you give a gift, the receiver oftentimes feels obligated to reciprocate. This sensitivity may help you in your decision making.

Crunch the Numbers. Now that you have a pared down list, allocate a spending cap for each person, making sure that you come in well under budget. You will need to allow a little breathing room for the inevitable last-minute gifts.

Pray. Give the list to God in prayer. Be honest and tell him that you want to bless these people but not get caught up in the commercialism of the season. Ask him for wisdom to find just the right gift at the right price for the right person.

Thanksgiving Day

Stuffing. After you've stuffed yourself with stuffing, walk to the den and get the stuffing out of your newspaper. These sales inserts are your ticket to happier holiday spending.

Sales Strategies. Select the stores with the best sales, preferably ones that are in the same shopping strip or otherwise centrally located. Driving all over town will only add to your gas bill and your stress level.

Compare. Study the list again and see which sales items might fit the people on your list. Look at all the ads to get the best values and remember, it's all right to come in under budget. Don't knock yourself out to get to a store that's offering a "free" cheap gift. Keep in mind this is a marketing tool and assess the retail value of that free item to decide if it's really worth top billing on your store hit list.

Plan. The majority of the best loss leaders will be offered at an earlier starting time because retailers want us to shop all day. Select which store to go to first and which can be visited later (especially if a sale lasts all day or several days.) If certain items are advertised as "limited supply—no rainchecks" then go to that store first.

Kids. Don't bring the children on this busy shopping day. It will be hard to hide the gifts that are purchased for them and they will distract from the task at hand. Instead, offer to pick up an advertised item for someone on their list. Be sure to help your child understand the budget and explain why budgets are important. Help with their lists and let them decide which teachers and friends will be thrilled to receive something they make or bake.

The Day After Thanksgiving

Adventure! Bring your spouse or a friend whose shopping mentality meshes with yours and make this day an adventure. It can be loads of fun. Set the alarm, make coffee, and set aside a cream-cheese pastry for the ride to the store.

Assessing Value. Sometimes an advertised product doesn't even vaguely resemble the photo in the sale circular. If it's cheap or cheesy, then skip it and go on to the next item. There will be a better find later. You may only pay Scrooge prices, but your gift doesn't have to look like it.

Keep on Target. Be aware of the fact that there are probably going to be other items that will catch the eye as soon as you get to the store. Bag the limited sale items first, then come back to the other special displays later—they're not going anywhere. Forego window shopping to get the loss-leaders at other stores (make sure your traveling partner can do the same).

Skip the Pricey Stuff. If the decorations, wrapping supplies, and smaller gifts aren't on sale, then skip them for now. They will inevitably go on sale and the value of the good deals can easily be blown by overspending in another area.

Go Home. Most of the exceptional values have already been advertised. So if everything on the list has been purchased, then feel free to go back home by noon with most of the gifts already bought.

Life Isn't Fair. Remember that the exact dollar amount doesn't have to be spent on each child or all their teachers to be fair. It's the quality of the gift, not the price that matters most. A gift for one friend may cost $20 and another only $10. Don't feel guilty that more was spent on one friend. Instead, choose to be thankful that God provided such a good deal for the other friend's gift!

Weeks After Thanksgiving

No Worries. Let's say you're reading this article for the first time the week after Thanksgiving. No problem. Just pick up from here. Make your list, budget, pray, and take advantage of the continued advertisements in the sale circulars.

Temptation. Sometimes, there's a temptation to have "buyers remorse" over gifts purchased during those early shopping days. Don't give into that temptation. Wrap the presents early, check them off the list, and remember that the gift isn't what is most important. Otherwise, there will always be one more gift to buy for a child, then you'll have to buy another for your other child to "even things out." Before long, you'll be paying off your credit cards until next May.

Food Sales. Retailers aren't the only ones who make money this time of year. This is also one of the highest grossing months of the year for grocery stores. Take advantage of the store's sale advertisements and their loss leaders. They usually offer great ones every week around the holidays. By buying that flour, cream cheese, and cranberry sauce when they're half-price, there's a savings on holiday baking. Go to my web site at www.elliekay.com to link to sites that offer coupons, web bucks (print out the page and the grocery store scans it for dollars off your next trip), and additional savings in the grocery store.

Families can take charge of their gift spending so they aren't left standing at the starting gate. By setting a budget and developing a list your holiday spending won't run wild and you won't have to play catch up on credit card debt. By focusing on the true meaning of Christmas and trusting God to provide—you will have the joyful freedom to bless others greatly.

Ellie Kay wrote Shop, Save, and Share and How to Save Money Every Day (both Bethany House). She, her husband, and their five kids live in New Mexico.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Consumerism; Debt; Marriage; Money
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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