The One Hour Project: Go Christmas Shopping At Sale Time

This post is part of The One Hour Project, in which you can spend just one hour to put your finances in a better place without a big lifestyle change, through frugality or other financial choices.

Not too long ago, the local Sears hardware store not too far from where I work went out of business. During their going out of business liquidation sale, I picked up a couple of items that were a stupendous deal merely because they seemed like perfect Christmas gifts for people on my list. Then, I just put those items into a hidden place in our home and wait for Christmastime.

The result of this is that I can often get people gifts that utterly amaze them, without them knowing I didn’t pay too much for them. A great example came a couple years ago when I replaced all my mother’s pots and pans with Calphalon hard anodized stuff. She was completely convinced I had dropped several hundred dollars, but what I had actually found was a great deal – less than $40 for the whole array of pots and pans.

There are several benefits to this strategy:

First, you don’t have the huge Christmas rush on your bank account. If many of your Christmas gifts are already safely purchased and put away, you don’t need to drop a lot of cash at Christmastime.

Second, you have all year to shop, not just the Christmas season. That means there’s no rush to find something for Great Aunt Selma – there’s very little pressure.

Third, it saves a huge wad of money. You can find amazing gifts for just a bit of nothing if you keep an eye on sales throughout the year. I estimate that last year I saved at least $300 on Christmas by following this strategy – and that’s not even counting potential savings on the credit card.

It’s not very hard, either. Here’s the game plan.

Shortly after Christmas (or any time well in advance of the Christmas season), make your Christmas list for the following year. List everyone you’ll need to buy for and come up with a general idea or two for a gift for them. For example, last year for my mom, I listed “cooking equipment” and for my father “outdoorsman equipment.” Very general stuff. I keep this list in my wallet at all times, just as a reminder.

Throughout the year, look for going out of business sales or other spectacular offers that coincide with your list. Going out of business sales are usually great ones to hit if you can, as are sales that match up with the rotation of seasonal items from stores. Since you have the entire year, you don’t have to be bloodthirsty about it – just keep your eyes open.

Keep spare cash available so that you can buy something when you see it. When you find the right item at a spectacular price, you need to be able to grab it right then. Make sure you can always do this. I actually am a year ahead on my Christmas savings, meaning I have all the money I plan on spending on Christmas ready to go one year in advance.

Here’s another example: I have two people on my list who both enjoy board games. Recently, a game shop in my area decided to clean out their board gamingg section and had a very sudden sale of the games, many of which had sat there unsold for a while. I heard about it, walked in the door, and got a copy of Ticket to Ride for $12 (a spectacular board game) and several other board games for sub-eBay prices. I took them home, eBayed all but Ticket to Ride (and two others I kept for myself) and broke even. Free Christmas present for a relative, two free games for me, all because I took a bit of time to prepare.

Got an hour to burn? Make up your Christmas list for next year, then see if there are any going out of business sales or other great opportunities around. You might be able to save a pile on the Christmas season, plus cut a lot of stress out of your life.

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  1. Brian says:

    Excellent post.

    In addition, instead of buying gifts, you can REGIFT items that you received which you are not too excited about. Regifting is acceptable, as long as the item has all the original packaging. You may feel “cheap” but the gift recipient will not know the difference.

  2. PJA says:

    That is genius.

  3. Excellent Idea. Been doing it for a very long time. There’s one small catch though (I have to admit, it’s very rare when it happens). Sometimes, you may get someone a gift that may be damaged (small electronics, etc) or that they may otherwise wish to return or exchange.

    Kind of puts you in a pinch, since you are already way outside of most stores’ return policies.

    But… it’s very, very rare, and a very low risk when put into perspective (and against the benefits of the $$$ you save)

  4. leslie says:

    This strategy works particularly well with gifts for Children’s birthday parties. I try to stick to a budget of $10 per gift for classmates birthday parties. Toys R’ Us recently had a 75% off sale. Even with shipping (I ordered online) I got a number of “generic” girl and boy toys for $5 a piece on average (“spy” kits, puzzles, action figure sets etc.). Now my gift closet is stocked for the next few months of birthday parties, I am well within my gift price limit and it saves me a lot of hassle the week before a party when I don’t have to make a run to Target.

  5. Carisa says:

    FYI, Target has backpacks and lunch bags for 30-75% off right now. I got some for Xmas and bday gifts.

  6. Margaret says:

    Consider reducing your Christmas buying list. I have been announcing all year that I am not buying any more gifts for adults, except the grandparents. If there are several people in a group that you buy for, suggest that you do a draw instead of everyone buying for everyone. Or if you are in a draw, but are just getting each other generic gifts, just drop out of the draw (I did this with the inlaws — first, DH bought something for everyone — then we got them doing a draw instead — now we are opting out of the draw — this is over a period of about 10 years — how many sets of bath products in scents I don’t care for can I use?). Another option is to suggest that you donate to charity instead — I’ve heard of families who stopped the Christmas draw and now take turns picking the charity. You don’t have to make a huge donation, and most charities will send a letter of acknowledgment to the person when you make a donation in honour of them, and no one need know the amount. I started doing this instead of buying presents for the neighbours (something DH got us started on — and the budget for those gifts was so low we were just getting and receiving clutter/junk) and for one other person on my list who literally has everything. This year, I am going to suggest to a few people that they might want to give my kids experiences instead of gifts — e.g. take them snowmobiling or an afternoon building a snow fort of something. Saves them money and us clutter. You could do this with older people too — e.g. my 94 year old grandmother would love to have someone take her to the plant conservatory (admission probably under $10 for both of us) rather than something else to store in her house. Although about 10 years ago I started buying my grandmother a fontanini nativity set — a different piece every year. She is a strong Catholic, but she has never had a nativity, so she loves it, and I will inherit it from her some day, which will make it extra special to me.

  7. A.M. says:

    That is a great idea. Makes perfect sense. Another example of how preplanning and long term focus can save you money and you also get to be the good guy.

  8. Sandy says:

    I’m wondering why this would save money on the credit card if TSD is always encouraging people to save up money for big purchases? What about opening up a holiday club savings account or setting-up a sub-account through ING?

  9. Dean says:

    Sandy: because not everyone is an existing reader, and not everyone cares to implement the ideas TSD says.

  10. Susy says:

    I have been doing this for years. I buy something during the year when I see something that “OH _____ would LOVE this!”. Then I get better presents because I’m not rushed at Christmas! I start Christmas shopping the day after Christmas. I usually have all my shopping finished by June!!!

    One note though, is to make sure you have a specific spot to keep all these presents in so you don’t forget you have them. Also, make sure you periodically look through the basket to keep stock of who you already have covered.

    One great note for reducing Christmas costs, this year we decide it was going to be an “homemade” Christmas and set a limit of $10 per family. So I can only spend $10 making a gift for my parents, sister, etc. It’s really fun to think of things to make for less than $10.

  11. Eileen says:

    While this makes sense from a financial viewpoint, I have found that it just doesn’t work with the adults in my circle. If in Feb I pick up the clue of “oh I would love this” and get it, more often than not I find that when Christmas rolls around again they already have it. They too spot a sale, or they save up for it, or sometimes they just treat themselves. And then it is too late to return mine.

  12. Tori says:

    I’m interested to hear about how you got an entire set of Cephalon pots and pans for less than $40. I need that for my own kitchen.

  13. Lisa says:

    Slight tangent of an idea: for the last 4 years my family has been celebrating Christmas on New Year’s Eve. We have nurses and police officers who are often required to work the holiday (or get paid GENEROUSLY if they volunteer to do so) and different families are spending Christmas with inlaws. After the first year, we discovered we really enjoyed doing most all of our Christmas shopping during the AFTER Christmas sales and enjoying drastically marked down prices.

  14. Ang says:

    I have been doing this for years and it not only saves you money but stress. I keep a “gift closet” where I place all these treasures. Also, I keep a few generic things for under $5 – $10 in the closet which can be used for other gift giving occasions such as house warmings etc…
    One summer I saw two beautiful vases that were originally $40 marked down to $5. I gave them to my two friends for Christmas and they absolutely love them.

  15. justin says:

    Yep, stressing so-and-so hasn’t already purchased the item in the preceeding X months since you purchased it can outweigh these benefits.

  16. Anita says:

    Another place I have found unique and often not especially expensive items is art and craft fairs…the kind where the actual artist is standing there in a booth selling his/hers own work. The art and craft fair season is late spring thru early autumn so one can get a leg up on collecting gifts before the holidays.

    but as with homemade gifts one has to be careful about who gets these unique handmade things.

    I tend to drop out of gift exchanging level friendship with people who don’t value gifts that require more time and thought than money.

    I have found that I need to mark each item with a post-it note so I remember who I intended it for!

    I also mark unwanted gifts with a note re who gave them to me because I have an unfortunate tendency to want to regift them to the original giver.

    I really, really hate those ‘let’s all bring a $5 or $10 gift to exchange’ get togethers of casual friends. This is where most of my unwanted and labeled to be regifted items come from! I generally find myself unable to attend these parties. I am also getting brassier about suggesting that we skip the gift exchange since most of us have too much stuff already and try to get the chat going in the direction of needing to declutter to make the point hit home.

    I have started passing things along too..you know you get and love tchokes but can only have a limited number in your life at any one time. I try to include a story of how I have loved this thing but now it is time to pass it along to someone else…both in case they feel bad getting something used and also to give them permission to pass it along themselves.

    I love the idea of giving a gift of time…Margaret taking her grandmother to the conservatory…haven’t started doing this yet but it is brilliant. There are a few kids in my life and I am thinking I want to take them to the San Francisco Exploratorium…well actually I want them to take me but….

  17. Crys says:

    I set up a separate ING account as my Christmas fund and put $60/month into it to ensure I have plenty come holiday time by October. This is actually the first year I’ve been able to implement it, and I’m excited that I won’t be rushing around this holiday trying to figure out how I’m going to afford anything. Plus I’ll have everything purchased by November, which is a great stress-reducer.

    I also keep notes on things I hear mentioned that people want. That way I have a list of good gift ideas come Christmas. I do this for my own wants as well so I have a running list that is kept up-to-date all the time (and stored in WordPress for easy access).

    The only thing I haven’t been able to implement yet is purchasing gifts -after- the holidays. If I have leftover money this year from the holiday fund, I will be attempting that for the first time as well.

  18. Beth says:

    I have found that another great gift is similar to the gift of time like Margaret, but has a twist. My husband, parents and in-laws all have too much stuff around the house, so we are trying to give “experiences”. For example, for my husband’s birthday, I bought tickets for him and his best friend to see a basketball game. He and his best friend are busy with work and his best friend has two small children, so they hadn’t spent any quality time together for many months. I gave him the gift of an enjoyable experience spending time with his best buddy. We gave my parents a night at a romantic little B&B for Christmas, which they used in May (Christmas throughout the year–awesome!!). My parents gave us money specifically for our vacation as an anniversary gift. Spending money this way really adds value and memories to our lives, rather than stuff that clutters our lives and homes.

  19. real estate says:

    i would never suggest going in december because of crowds, weather, etc. but if you want the WHOLE nyc in christmas then you would have to go in december.
    but if you want to avoid crowds and go when the christmas atmosphere is just starting then go near the end of november.
    at mean there is always a lot of people in the city but in december its CRAZY!

    have fun shopping!

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