Black Friday has been a shopping tradition for many years.  I remember when my son, Brian, was a baby and we were visiting my parents, he was rather fussy and was driving my father crazy.  So the day after Thanksgiving, he went into town to purchase a baby swing at Toys R Us ®.  That was 23 years ago and he hasn’t forgotten it!  He thought the baby was fussy, Black Friday shoppers are in a league of their own – they were then and they are now, so he now knows to stay out of the way or stay home.  He did come home with a swing which made the rest of our Thanksgiving holiday weekend much more pleasant.

I’ve come to embrace Black Friday myself because of the special deals – even if you don’t get up at 4 am to get them.  With a little planning and preparation, holiday shopping can be a good experience all around.  Without the planning, it can be a disaster.  I talked to a gentleman on our financial helpline last week who was having trouble making ends meet and was trying to take a loan on his 401(k) to pay for dental work.  He had no emergency fund and the dentist wanted the co-pay up front.  Even so, Christmas presents for the family were on his mind.  He was going to up his loan amount since Christmas was coming up.  He didn’t want his little boys to do without.

He really didn’t know that his family could have a wonderful holiday season with special gifts without going broke getting them.  Deals on Black Friday are only one aspect by being a smart shopper and planner for the holiday season, it can be done.  Here are some tried and true holiday shopping tips:

Spend time planning before you go shopping.  Walking into the mall without a plan is a recipe for disaster.  First of all, remember that when you are going into a store, you are in the store’s “territory” – you are constantly being marketed to.  I shop at TJ Maxx (love the deals there and quality merchandise),  and I noticed they just changed their check out set up which now takes you through a special aisle filled with little things (that you don’t need) like coffee mugs, candles, headsets for your iPod, leg warmers, and books for a baby.  I succumbed to the pressure one day and bought a Sharper Image dog pedometer for $4.  Really?  I need that?  We haven’t used it yet though it is cute – shaped like a little dog bone.

Start with a reasonable budget for your holiday spending.  Sit down and review how much you have in savings and how much you want to (and can afford to) spend on presents.  If money is tight, make homemade gifts so you don’t go into debt.  Your loved ones would be seriously upset with you if you did!  They’d rather have a pot holder or a jar of your homemade jam than a gift you can’t afford.  Homemade gifts are coveted because the giver spent time and energy on the gift or they came up with something clever to amuse you.

Determine who you’ll buy gifts for and itemize your list.  Once you have that, you can start to find deals.  Black Friday ads can help– you can find low cost gifts if you do your homework.  Whether it is DVD’s at Best Buy® for $2 instead of $15 or memory cards at The Shack® for the camera buff can be found super cheap if you look.

Shop online.  Many online retailers participate in the Black Friday super sales and other daily deals, and many offer low cost or free shipping.  You can also read the online reviews – I always get a lot out of the reviews on®.  Shopping online can also save you money even if you have to pay shipping by helping you avoid the impulse purchases at checkout!  I wonder how much we actually “add on” when we shop at the store including buying things for ourselves.  Maybe it would be better to do most of our shopping online.

Make it an experience – literally.  One of our planners did something different last year – they booked a family trip for the following year.  Under the Christmas tree, her family had travel brochures wrapped up in boxes decorated with pretty bows.  They booked a Thanksgiving cruise for the whole family which they will be taking this year (this week!) so they were able to get rock bottom prices for booking early and will enjoy this family experience cruising the warm waters of the Caribbean while their home town is socked in with snow and ice.  They also had a whole year to plan and anticipate their adventure so their holiday excitement was extended.

Track your progress.  Other than planning, this might be the most important aspect to staying on budget.  Keep a running total of your spending – go “old school” by keeping a little notebook in your purse or in your car and make notations whenever you spend for the holidays.  If you open a special holiday spending account, you can track your progress using an app like on your phone.  Writing it down or tracking it daily can help you keep your budget top of mind when you are falling prey to marketing or your own emotions that pull you from your goal.

I am trying to think back at some of my favorite Christmas presents and my mind is flooded with memories – not so much of the presents but of family and friends.  I remember going to Midnight Mass, leaving out cookies for Santa, wonderful meals, playing penny poker with the guys, and seeing the house completely messy and not caring one bit.  The presents were part of the experience but not the most important part.  Was it the same way for you?  If so, enjoy the planning and the gift buying, but let’s keep our perspective.

Watch out if you are in my office pool for white elephant gifts.  You just might see a doggy pedometer shaped like a dog biscuit.  It’s really cute :)