Start Your (Christmas Shopping) Engines

Christmas is 2 months away, and it's not a minute too soon to start shopping for Christmas gifts. If you're like me, you'd shop for gifts year round, but I suspect most people aren't like me. I usually troll clearance racks at the end of each season to shop for myself, but I still keep an eye out for gift-worthy things. Department stores have sales every couple of weeks, if not every week, so why is it a good time now?

Well, for one thing, October is closer to the holidays than say January, but at the same time it's still early enough to beat the holiday rush and the accompanying specially jacked-up prices. Sales are not created equal. Yes, there are "holiday sales," but only for certain items so that the Retail Monsters can lure you in to get pricier products. For another thing, summer clearances items are now generally priced at the lowest levels, which means you can maximize the number of gifts you get for people with what little money you've got. In fact, when I went to the mall on Friday, there were some fall stuff going for a good price. A Charlotte Russe, I saw some beautiful, fully-lined, dark blue-green velvet jackets at $20 (half off). There were also summer party tops for $5. Some prices might go down even further in the next few weeks, but if you wait too long, the clearance section would get cleared out for new merchandise.

An added benefit to shopping early is that certain places won't restrict how long you have to return unopened/unworn goods now, but will put on those limitations for things purchased November/December. If you're really concerned about what your gift recipients think about having a gift receipt dated months before December, just don't attach the gift receipt to the gift. Instead, offer to exchange the item yourself, or ask them to let you know if they want to exchange it so that you can give them the gift receipt. Personally, I don't think there's any shame in shopping early. December or March, the goods are the same. The only difference is the cash you lose for the former.

That said, there are some pitfalls to shopping early. Many stores limit the return period to 30 days after purchase, so if you get the wrong stuff, you're screwed. If you intend to purchase clothes, there's always the risk of getting something that's going to go out of style. Here are some tips to avoid holding the bag. They are equally applicable when it comes to buying Christmas or birthday gifts early.

1) Know who you're buying things for, whether it's your parents, cousins, or friends. Think about their personalities, tastes, and sizes. There are so many times when I go out to buy things for myself and end up seeing things on the shelf that looks "so *insert name here*." If you see it and it's on sale, grab it. Thinking ahead of time not only saves you money, but you'll also get heaps of praises for your thoughtfulness.

2) Get items that are practical, things that anyone can use. Who doesn't appreciate practical gifts? It saves them money because you've already gotten them something they need. I call these "generic" gifts. Things from the "home" section of the store falls into this category. They are nonperishable, not subjected to the whims of fashion, and could be saved for times when you don't have time to buy gifts or when you get things from someone you least expected. Unlike the most practical thing of all--money (in the form of cash or gift cards)--you can often get something really fancy and no one will ever know how little you've spent. Take, for example, a set of 4 small Emeril plates I saw at Rob May. They would have been at least $20, but I got them for $2.50. I gave them to my cousin for her birthday and she absolutely loved them.

3) If you're buying clothes or accessories, get things that are stylish but classic. This is more of an outgrowth of point #2--you want things practical enough that people will make good use out of them. Dress shirts, ties, wallets, or graphic t-shirts for the guys; graphic tees, cute tanks/camis, jewelry, tote bags for the girls.

4) If you're getting clothes, get something that has a greater margin of error for the fit. Tops are fairly easy to get. For guys, when in doubt, get the bigger size. For the girls, fitted is the right style, but make sure the top is stretchy enough so that your gift won't turn into a sausage wrapper (that the poor girl has to squeeze into). Casual jackets and sweaters are also good, since they don't require an exact fit like blazers, but make sure they won't look too frumpy if it turns out to be too big. Don't ever get pants unless you know for sure that it'll fit their intended owner. If you do get pants, track pants/shorts or yoga capris are good candidates; dress pants tend to be really tailored and body-type-specific. For skirts, get something with elastic waistbands or drawstrings and in flexible fabrics--they'll provide some give.

5) If you're getting clothes, try them on first. At one time or another, you and your friends must have talked about what sizes you wear or even borrowed clothes from each other. If a shirt or skirt fits you, there's a high probability that it'll fit a friend of a similar body type. Even if the intended recipient isn't the same body type, your guestimation would be more accurate you know which size fits you.

6) Depending on the situation, it may work better to get several related small items and package them together. If you're getting fashion jewelry, giving away a $2 necklace, even if it's originally worth 10 times as much, looks really cheap even for me. Throwing in another inexpensive but nice item (like one of those $5 sales top from Charlotte Russe, or another piece of jewelry) would make a better gift. Another way is to just get multiple quantities of the same thing. I've packaged 4 very nice 75-cent cups (originally $1.50 each) together and gave them away as a set.

7) If your budget is really thin and can't afford to put together a nice combination, the presentation of your gift goes a long way. Even if it's just a $3 bracelet, putting it in a box with pretty wrapping paper and a fancy bow makes it look like a million bucks. Ikea, Big Lots, and the 99 Cent Store have really nice gift-wrapping supplies.

8) Finally, I would avoid getting stuff that are holiday-specific. If people can only use them for a limited number of days per year, it's not really practical. Besides, by the time you give it to them, they can't use it anymore (which makes your well-meaning intentions impracticable). If you do want to get holiday-specific gifts, make sure the year isn't printed on it.

In the end, it's the thought that counts, not how much you spend. If you can get something nice for $5, why thumb your nose at it?

Now go get 'em! If you got more tips, feel free to share, 'cuz sharing is caring.

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