How To

6 Ways To Survive The Last-Minute Holiday Shopping Rush Stress- and Debt-Free

photo: di_the_huntress

If you’re among the countless consumers who do their shopping the week before Christmas, you probably know that panicked feeling of trekking to a crowded mall, hoping they still have a few Justin Bieber CDs or whatever the “it” gift is on your list.

One easy way to avoid that stress is to shop online, and thanks to Free Shipping Day, scheduled for Friday, December 17, you can purchase all those gifts at no added cost and with guaranteed delivery to the continental U.S. by December 24. More than 1,000 online retailers are participating, and over 60% of them are offering free shipping on all orders (no minimum purchase required).

But that’s not all you can do to reduce holiday shopping stress and overspending. Here are five additional tips on smart last-minute shopping.

1. Make a list and stick to it

Just because you’re shopping last-minute doesn’t mean you should blow your budget or buy extra gifts that weren’t on your list. The temptation to over-spend is especially strong in stores, where it’s easy to become distracted by pretty, shiny things you and your gift recipients won’t actually use. Lauren Lyons Cole, an independent Certified Financial Planner®, urges shoppers to “go into the store with your budget and a list so you’re not tempted to buy all these little dumb things that stores put in aisles.”

2. Make post-shopping plans

On top of luring shoppers with impulse buys, retailers use festive sounds and scents to get consumers revved up and eager to spend more. “A lot of times we don’t even realize how that simulation is affecting us,” warns Kimberly Palmer, author of Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back. That’s why she suggests you make plans afterwards to limit the time you’re shopping. “Research shows once you start spending, you’re more likely to keep spending,” she adds.

3. Comparison shop

Whether you’re ordering online or shopping at the mall, comparison shop. Websites like DealNews.com and NextTag.com let you see which sites offer the best prices, while mobile apps like ShopSavvy and Google Shopper let you scan a barcode to see what other stores in your area have the item you want and at what price (currently, Google Shopper is only available for the Android but Google Goggles has some similar features). (See our lists of this holiday season’s best iPhone and Android shopping apps here and here.)

4. Find coupons

If you’re shopping online, always search for the retailer name and ‘coupon code’ or ‘discount code’ before you check out, says Palmer. “You can almost always find a discount.” Web portals like Ebates.com let you earn cash back, so that’s another way to maximize online purchases. Those headed to local stores or the mall can use FourSquare.com to look for discounts. Just make sure the discount is on something you actually want and avoid getting seduced by the idea of a bargain.

5. Get a gift receipt

Forgetting to ask for a gift receipt is one of the biggest mistakes a last-minute shopper can make, says frugal gift expert Leah Ingram. “Gift receipts acknowledge that sometimes the gift misses the mark. This makes it easier if the recipient needs to exchange it.” Often, a gift receipt will give your recipient more time to return the item and avoids the tackiness of seeing the price on a regular receipt.

And here’s a bonus incentive for getting a receipt: “I keep the gift in the bag with the receipt and wait until the day before to wrap it,” says Cole. “If I find something better or cheaper, returns are easy and I’m not really committing, because I have the gift in the bag with the receipt. During the holiday season, everyone is more likely to buy stuff that they didn’t mean to buy.”

6. When all else fails, get creative

Say you’ve almost exhausted your holiday budget, but you still have gifts to buy. Ingram recommends digging through any gift cards you have leftover from birthdays or holidays to see if those retailers might have an appropriate gift. She also keeps a “gift closet” with generic items like notepads or bags of coffee she’s picked up on sale or items she’s received and doesn’t plan to use.

Harried shoppers might also consider the DIY approach. For gifts this holiday season, Lyon plans to make salt body scrub and put it inexpensive bottles from the Container Store. As she points out, “even though DIY gifts might cost less, you’re sacrificing your time, which is also valuable.”

And speaking of time, Palmer predicts that experiences will be a popular gift this year, especially among budget-conscious twenty-somethings. “People enjoy getting gifts of your time, especially parents and other family members, like taking your mom to the museum for an afternoon or playing tennis with your Dad,” she says. It may not come in a big box with a fancy ribbon, but the feeling is priceless.

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.