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By Mallika Mitra
December 3, 2020
Money; Getty Images

We’ve had to break a lot of traditions this holiday season, and for many of us, not participating in big family gatherings is one of the most difficult.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking people to consider celebrating virtually, avoiding travel, and sticking with those in your immediate household for the holidays.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get grandpa another pair of socks — or your favorite cousin an Anthony Fauci-inspired ornament. But it does mean that you'll likely have to ship gifts to the bulk of your list this year, which isn't a always a cheap endeavor, and can take some careful planning.

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Here are some tips for shipping presents without spending your entire holiday budget.

Act soon

Every year the Postal Service advises people to ship early. This year, it's especially important to act ASAP.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is expecting customer traffic to increase starting Dec. 7, with Dec. 14 through Dec. 21 being the busiest mailing, shipping, and delivery time of the year, according to Kimberly Frum, senior public relations representative.

In order for gifts to reach their recipients by Christmas, USPS has set two important mailing deadlines: Dec. 15 for retail ground service, which is the most economical option that usually takes between two to eight business days, and Dec. 19 for priority mail service, which is based on weight and dimension, or flat-rate envelopes and boxes, and usually takes between one to three business days. Prices start at $7.50 for both.

Procrastinating could hurt your wallet.

“The later you wait, the fewer options you have, and the more expensive they can be,” Frum says.

Here's a cross-country example. If you mail a five-pound package from New York City to San Francisco on Dec. 8, you'll pay about $24 for retail ground delivery, and expect it to arrive a week later. But if you wait until Dec. 22, you'll have to spend more than $70 for express delivery to ensure it’s there before Dec. 25. If you're mailing to Alaska, Hawaii, or internationally, you'll have to pay even more .

If you’re shipping via the United Parcel Service (UPS) or FedEx instead, it’s still in your best interest to act as soon as possible. The growth of e-commerce shopping in 2020 means that every shipping network is ramping up for what could be an unprecedented holiday shipping season. FedEx alone is projecting its shipping volumes to be up 22% compared to last year, according to company spokesperson Shannon Davis. So shop (and ship) early.

Dec. 15 is the last day to ship via FedEx ground delivery, if you need your gift to arrive by Dec. 25. After that, you’ll need to spend more for a service like FedEx Express Saver, which gets packages to recipients in three business days if you send them by 4:30 pm (that deadline is Dec. 21.) If you’re going with UPS, ground shipping is also the cheapest option, and like FedEx's, has a Dec. 15 deadline.

Order flat-rate shipping materials online

If you missed the USPS's Dec. 15 deadline to ship via the retail ground service but still want to go with the post office, Priority Mail might be your best — and cheapest — option. Packages tend to arrive within three business days, include tracking, and up to $50 of insurance. Priority Mail comes at a flat rate, so what you’re shipping might heighten the cost, but where you’re shipping won’t. Flat rates vary, shipping a small box (like a pair of EarPods) costs $8.30, while mailing a large box (like a laptop) costs $21.10.

By the way, you don’t actually have to leave your house to ship gifts: USPS’ Click-N-Ship feature lets you order boxes, envelopes, print shipping labels, and online purchase postage to be delivered to your house for free. You can also request free package pickup, so that once you've wrapped up your gifts, the USPS will pick up your package (again, for free) and mail it for you.

You could also save money by reusing old boxes, but Frum doesn’t recommend it, since they can get worn during shipping and spill open. If you do go this route, make sure to secure the seams of your old boxes with a layer (or two) of packaging tape.

Consider sending gifts directly to recipients

Although admittedly not as fun as wrapping gifts yourself, you may also be able to save a few bucks by cutting out the middle man and having the gifts you order online sent directly to the recipient without make a stop at your place.

Some retailers offer free or low-cost gift-wrapping, gift boxes, or personalized messages in their online shops. At Target, gift wrap is available with most items for a flat rate of $6. At Macy’s, you can include a gift box for $6, and a personalized gift message for free.

In a pinch, you could also ask someone in house of your gift's recipient to pinch-hit on the wrapping front (like having grandma unpack and label those socks for grandpa), Either way, if you plan on sending presents to your friends and family this year, be sure to do it ASAP.

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