The Black Friday ‘Shopping List’ Trick

For those readers outside of America, Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a national holiday, held on the fourth Thursday of November, and many people have the day off of work. A large portion of them also receive the day after Thanksgiving off — or they may take the day off, because school’s out — creating a four-day vacation.

So, Black Friday involves retailers being open, many office workers having the day off, and a position on the calendar that’s close to the December gift-giving holidays. It’s no surprise that enterprising retailers have turned that day into an event focused on shopping. Retailers tend to offer bargains on goods of all kinds, though there is often a focus on home electronic items and clothing.

Many people head out very early on Friday morning to take advantage of the sales (and the media loves to show videos of the crowds). Going out on Black Friday was a tradition for me back before my financial turnaround and I fully remember those crowds.

The problem with Black Friday is that it’s easy to get caught up in the sales. If you find yourself simply browsing through the flyers, it’s easy to convince yourself that you need a particular item, and it’s also easy to convince yourself that you need to buy some item that you find for someone on your holiday shopping list.

Thus, over the last few years, I’ve adopted a different strategy for Black Friday. It gives me a way to still take advantage of the Black Friday sales, but without falling into a pit of temptation. It directly borrows from a grocery shopping strategy that has directly saved me thousands of dollars over the years.

It’s the ol’ shopping list trick.

How can you apply a shopping list here? It’s simple, and it’s actually something you can start on today, several days before Black Friday.

Here’s how it works.

If you don’t already have one, make a big list of everyone who might be on your holiday shopping list this year. I usually do this in September by making a note in Evernote with the names of everyone I need to buy a gift for, then gradually filling it in over time as ideas come to me.

If you don’t have that list, get cracking. It’s an incredibly useful tool to have for the upcoming holiday season.

Now, before you ever look at a single Black Friday flyer, come up with ideas for everyone on your list. You can do this however you’d like. Be creative and try to come up with thoughtful ideas for each person on your list, but don’t be afraid to tap gift idea lists online.

For example, for one friend, I’m actually building an electronic device out of parts using my electronics know-how. For another person on my list, we’re getting some supplemental equipment for their Keurig coffee maker so that they’re not stuck in an endless cycle of buying K-Cups. For another person, we’re giving a hardcover book.

Some of those items are things I’ll have to make, while others are things I’ll just buy off the shelf. Some of those items are cheap, while others might be pricey. For most people, I have just one idea, but for a few people, I have several potential ideas.

The process of making this list is intended to separate the process of buying gifts into separate stages, so that I can focus on each stage with a different mindset. This initial gift list is heavily creative and is centered around thinking about the person involved, the approximate amount of money I want to spend on that person, and what items might match that person’s interests and personality within the expense range. I am not interested in the actual buying process yet.

You need to have this list finished a few days before Black Friday or else this Black Friday strategy simply doesn’t work.

Okay, so you’ve got your gift idea list in hand. Now what? Now it becomes a shopping list.

Go through your gift idea list and copy down everything that might possibly be on sale on Black Friday anywhere. If you think there’s a chance that a particular item might be on sale on Black Friday in a brick-and-mortar retailer or online, jot it down on this new list.

This is a shopping list, much like a person might make when they’re going to buy groceries for the week. Just like a traditional grocery shopping list, it serves a couple of valuable purposes that are intended to save you money.

First of all, it provides a clear checklist of the things you need to get. If you’ve prepared a list like this, you can be sure that if you complete that list, you’re going to have everything you need for the coming week – or, in this case, the coming holiday season.

Second, and this is perhaps the more important feature, it keeps you on focus. The value of a shopping list is that it directs your focus specifically toward the items on the list and away from the items that are not on your list. Rather than just slowly ambling through flyers and websites thinking about the items that are presented and whether they match people on your list, you’re just zooming through them, checking solely for items that match your already-existing holiday list.

Thus, the next step in this process is to look at the Black Friday sales solely through the lens of your list, just as you would do if you were in a grocery store with a list in hand. You wouldn’t wander down the aisles looking back and forth wondering what you’ll have for supper on Tuesday night if you have a list in hand. Instead, you’d just blow through the store like a man on fire, getting out of there with minimal cost because the only things you’d have to consider buying were the things on your list. Very few unplanned things would find their way into your cart because you weren’t paying any attention to those things you weren’t planning on buying.

That’s exactly what you’ll do right now if you have that list of potential Black Friday items in hand. Just go through the flyers looking solely for the items on your list, nothing more. Nothing else matters. All other purchases are completely irrelevant to your life.

Take my list for Black Friday, for example. I have exactly three items on it, two of which I think will probably pop up in a Black Friday sale somewhere and one which might show up. When I sit down on Thanksgiving and go through the sale flyers and the lists of what’s going to be on sale at online retailers, I’m not sitting there asking myself whether this item or that item that I happen to notice will make a nice gift for Aunt Beatrice, I’m blowing through the flyers like there’s no tomorrow and coming up with maybe two retailers that I might want to check for a single item each.

There’s another prong to this strategy, though: I give enormous preference to online retailers on Black Friday. The truth is that I simply don’t want to go to the stores on Black Friday. It’s often difficult to walk through the aisles, meaning you’re often stuck in place with nothing to look at but the items on the shelf near where you’re standing. That’s about the worst possible place to be for someone who wants to keep a grip on their spending, because your mind will often try to match that item you’re looking at with someone on your list or some minor want that you personally have and, if you’re not careful, that great “bargain” will needlessly wind up in your cart. You’re far better off not being in that position in the first place, so it’s much easier to just target a specific item at an online retailer from the comfort of your couch.

When you take all of these tactics together as a whole, you end up with a Black Friday strategy that centers around being extremely focused. You’re looking only for a few items and only if they’re on deep discount; if not, then you just toss the flyer in the trash where it belongs.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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