Love it or hate it, Black Friday is an American tradition. And like most things in 2020, this traditional shopping holiday is not shaking out to look the same as usual.
In normal years, masses of shoppers gather around big box retailers on Thanksgiving night or the wee hours of the following morning in the hopes of scoring the best deals on big-ticket items like smart TVs and new gaming systems.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most (if not all) retailers like Target and Walmart offering Black Friday deals have put most of their energy towards online shopping, and they have greatly expanded the length of time bargains will be available. In other words, Black Friday is just another day of deals and promotions, in a string of several weeks full of deals and promotions. If you’re on the hunt to find the lowest prices on holiday gifts this year, you probably should have already gotten started. If not, it’s time to get shopping.
It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of "50% Off!" sales and buy-one-get-one deals. But to make the most of Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) shopping, it’s important to have a game plan to avoid overspending, and to filter out the merely mediocre promotions from the truly great deals.
Here are six easy ways to get all of your holiday shopping accomplished without breaking the bank.
1. Shop Online for the Best Deals
“Since we’re not having a traditional Black Friday, retailers have gone out a lot earlier with their sales and that gives people time to do more comparison shopping,” says Amy Sewell, a consumer brands spokesperson who runs Shop With Style With Amy Sewell.
In the past, there were major incentives to shop in person: better discounts, instant access to the items you wanted, and no need to worry about shipping fees or delays. But nowadays shipping is faster than ever, and online discounts are usually identical to the ones you’d find in a store.
What's more, when you shop online, it’s easier to compare the deals and prices among multiple retailers. You don't face the pressure of being in a store, surrounded by aggressive shoppers snatching up items left and right — a situation in which you're prone to feeling compelled to buy stuff before it sells out, regardless of whether the price is the lowest available. You’ll also save time, energy, and money that might otherwise be suckered out of your wallet by a flashy aisle display.
To help you compare deals in seconds, websites like slickdeals.net aggregate millions of items for sale across the internet for shoppers. Sure, you could reference deals sites and price-comparison tools on your phone while inside a store on Black Friday, but you're more likely to take your time and make smart buying decisions in a quieter and less-frenzied environment.
2. Do Your Homework
As you compare prices online, it’s a good idea to do a deep dive into the products you’re interested in buying. After all, no matter how cheap the price, you're not getting a good value if you wind up with a product you don't really like or use.
It’s important when shopping online to be sure that the products you’re interested in buying come from legitimate vendors and have real reviews. Big e-commerce sites like Amazon are notorious targets for people writing fake five-star product reviews — in fact, there’s a whole industry of merchants paying people to make false reviews on Amazon. While the e-commerce giant does try to quickly take down fake reviews when they find them, they sometimes miss.
An easy way to avoid buying fake or low-quality items is to use a tool like the Fakespot browser extension, which scans e-commerce websites like Amazon and eBay in real time as you browse. It generates a letter grade for each product and its reviews.
Online and in-person shoppers should also do their due diligence to check every item’s warranty and every store’s return policies. Obviously, you don’t want to end up making a big purchase (for yourself or as a gift) that can’t returned for a full refund.
Luckily, most big retailers extend their return policies around the holidays. For instance, Target’s 30-day return policy for electronics bought between Oct. 1 and Dec. 25 starts on Dec. 26, rather than from the day it was purchased. Meanwhile, Macy’s is accepting returned items sold between now and Dec. 31 through Jan. 31 or 90 days after the item was purchased, whichever comes later.
3. Make a Black Friday Shopping List
This should be a no-brainer for any shopping trip, but especially during the chaotic Black Friday or Cyber Monday sales periods: Make a list (and check it twice).
“I recommend having it in the memo function on their phones so they can have it with them wherever they are,” says Trae Bodge, another shopping expert helping consumers save money at TrueTrae.com.
Both in-store and online shoppers would do best to have a digital list. It's easy to catalogue links to deals and extra coupons on your phone, and to quickly remove items once they’re purchased to avoid accidental repeat purchases. If you’re shopping mainly for a dozen or so friends and family members, you might even include a spending limit for each person on your list.
“Because of the random nature of the deals this year, having a list with recipients and a suggested budget for each [person] will help you stay on track,” says Bodge.
You can also avoid overspending around Black Friday by sticking to the types of deals the day is known for — and skip other items until they go on sale. For example, Walmart is offering Airpods Pro earbuds for $80 off starting the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But not everything will be discounted right now. For example, shoppers should not expect brand-new gaming consoles like the Sony PlayStation 5 to be discounted at all during holiday sales.
4. Only Spend What’s in Your Wallet
With thousands of retailers now touting partnerships with buy-now-pay-later instant lenders like Afterpay and Klarna, it’s easy to be swept up in the novelty of paying for expensive items in smaller installments. Sewell warns that this is a slippery slope: “I’m going to say this upfront: if you cannot afford it, do not buy it. There’s no more straightforward way to say that.”
Stick to the rule of thumb that if you can’t pay for it with the money you have right now, then it’s time to step (or click) away from that Instant Pot, Nintendo Switch, or whatever ultra-popular gadget you’ve been coveting. It’s better — and more rewarding — to save up until you can pay for the item in full, rather than drag out the payment process for weeks.
If you’re someone who tends to overspend, it might be a good idea to set aside a limited amount of cash you want to spend or stick to shopping online with just a debit card. Be aware that retailers will be pushing their own store credit cards this holiday season, regardless of whether you shop online or in-person. It might be tempting to get that extra 15% off your purchase by signing up, but the APR on store credit cards tend to be high — and unless you already shop there all the time, it’s probably not worth the pain.
“We all want to shop and treat ourselves, and that’s okay, but it should stay in your budget,” says Bodge.
5. Keep Every Receipt
Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind on Black Friday is making sure every item you’re buying will actually be put to good use. What happens if you bought a glitzy dress that looked great in the dressing room but not-so-great once you’re home? Do you fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy and hold onto the dress, hoping some day it’ll magically look perfect? Or do you take the wise and sensible step and return it for a refund (assuming you kept the receipt)?
If you’re shopping for others, it’s especially important to make sure each purchase comes with a gift receipt. That way, if your loved one isn’t in love with the gift, they can exchange it for something that they will use. It’s an easy way to ensure that both parties are satisfied, and none of your gift budget goes to waste.
6. Earn Cash Back
Some people live by the idea that you have to spend money to make money. Although that advice is usually spewed by the most financially irresponsible character in any given sitcom, if you can make money while spending it, then you absolutely should.
If you’re a credit card user, find out which stores your card provider has partnerships with and are offering the best cash back or points this holiday season. For instance, Chase Freedom® card holders can get 5% cash back on their first $1,500 spent at Walmart through the end of the year, while Discover it™ card holders get the same deal for shopping online at Amazon, Walmart, and Target.
Not a fan of credit cards and promotions that encourage you to spend? There are still plenty of opportunities to get cash back — you just have to be more deliberate about finding them.
“One tool that will be helpful is the Rakuten app,” says Bodge. “You can pair your credit card with the app before you shop, select the offers they have available, and then when you pay with that credit card the cash back is automatically credited.”
You do need to be cautious with apps like Rakuten though. You can miss better deals if you’re too heavily focused on cash back. Ideally when Black Friday shopping, you want to prioritize saving money overall, and think of cash-back rewards as just an extra perk.