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Easy Breezy Tips to Get Through Holiday Shopping Season (With Your Budget Intact)

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Growing up, perhaps the greatest holiday tradition was that of Black Friday shopping.
My mom and I would wake up at 5 am the day after Thanksgiving, packing up the car with snacks and coffee as we drove to the closest outlet center and honed in on the kill. Some dads take their sons fishing, my mom took me hunting. For bargains. Sales.

She honed me in on the sport of finding the best deal early on. In some ways, her shopping prowess schooled me for my future career far more than my journalism degree. Also, it was way more fun than advanced news-writing class.

Truth be told, I have very little interest in reporting "breaking news" these days -- news is depressing. My favorite news alerts are those related to sales and shopping, and as we get closer to the holiday season there's a windfall of opportunity to enjoy just that.

So what if I don't dream of sugar plums but of shopping bags? SO WHAT?

Stay on a budget
One could love shopping and not have money to throw around. Perhaps sticking to a budget can be the best kind of shopping because we can be armed with the knowledge we had just as satisfying a shopping experience as our friends, but have blown way less of our hard-earned money.

I try to plot ahead whenever I can. A flurry of shopping activity in late December is the best way to spend more than you intend and not even get what you want. When I was a kid, my mom told me I had 365 days to prepare for her birthday each year, and I should plan accordingly. She was right -- and I put this to practice with my holiday shopping. You have 365 days from Christmas to the following Christmas to be ready. That means if you find earrings your sister would love on sale in January, buy them and put them away! The earlier you start, the more time you have to plan, save, and be prepared.

Always have strategy
I'm Jewish, and we grew up celebrating Hanukkah. I was always a proponent of one big gift vs. 8 little gifts. Little gifts - much like stocking stuffers - are cute and small and not nearly as exciting (at least to me) as one really awesome present. When you plan out your gifts, do the people on your lists get big gifts, little gifts, a combination? Everything of course has a distinctive budget allotment. I encourage people to share their wish lists with me, too. No matter how much I'm spending, I want to make sure what I'm buying is something that my loved ones will LOVE. For me, nothing less is acceptable.

Make a list (and check it twice)
Whether someone is naughty or nice, they are probably going to get a gift from me. I think the holiday season is all about forgiveness and love. If there's someone who is important to you, use this opportunity to reach out and share that love. And no black coal, either. It's bad karma. But do make a list of people you want to send well wishes to. This doesn't have to be a bought gift. Many years, I've made homemade gifts and sent them to people I love. You need to plot out how much you can spend in total before you can figure out how much you should spend per person. And this will keep you organized, as well.

Shop smart
I was always a Black Friday fan, but now I know there's a bigger picture. Cyber Monday is a way bigger deal in my book now. First of all, it allows me to sleep late post Turkey Day. Also, it saves time and energy and you can get some amazing discount codes and free shipping online. I share all the deals I find throughout the season on my personal Twitter, @AlyWalansky, and sometimes the sales are staggering. We're talking 50% off opportunities (or more) and flash deals, making online opportunities often far superior to brick and mortar.

Many online sales start before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, so start preparing now. Many stores are already leaking their deals, making planning that list now even easier. If your boyfriend says he wants a DSLR camera, don't just buy whichever one is on sale though. He'll probably end up leaving it in the box and yearning for some other one. If you're not sure of which specific item to buy, search for reputable online reviews. I love doing research when shopping. I feel all studious!

The gift of choice
I love gift cards. Not only are they tax-free, but they let the recipient choose exactly what they want. I love Starbucks and various blow out bar gift cards, myself. My friends know that and often act accordingly. But your friends may want the gift of Victoria's Secret or Sephora. Whatever they love, it gives them options. And it saves YOU time: Hours spent shopping for the "perfect" gift only to end up empty-handed. Also don't be afraid to be creative here as well: I sometimes redeem my Citi ThankYou Rewards points to buy gift cards -- meaning everyone wins, including me!

Good luck with your holiday shopping! And if you are looking for a deal for any specific product or store, send me a tweet any time - I live for shopping scores!