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Holiday Shopping - Cutting Back on Stress

It's almost that time of year again -- the biggest shopping period of the year -- when even some "plan-ahead" consumers can find themselves starting out strong but then getting caught up in a last-minute buying frenzy. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, and spending during the holiday season represents about 19 percent or around $440 billion of that total. 

The average U.S. consumer spends about $700 to $800 for holiday gifts. The most popular gifts generally are clothing -- whether it's men's, women's, or children's -- and, of course, toys. Music, such as CDs and tapes, is high on many people's lists. Videos, books, small appliances, household items, and specialty foods are also popular with many shoppers. With almost unlimited choices in what to buy, consumers also have a broad range of choices about where to buy their gifts. Traditional department stores, discount stores, superstores and both large and small specialty shops vie for the consumer's dollar. 

Then there are the holiday catalogs that started arriving about a month ago, where products can range from arctic snowshoes to museum replicas. Consumers also are shopping in cyberspace, and the choice there is also wide -- from on-line buyers' club megastores to specialty products offered by artisans. With all of these choices during a season that's already busy with end-of-year work projects, entertaining, holiday parties, and travel, here are some hints for cutting down on shopping stress: Starting with a budget for holiday shopping can help put you in control and help you avoid bill-paying shock when the next year rolls around. Even if you use a rough estimate for what you can afford to spend on gifts, it acts as a brake to keep you from going into over-drive in your spending. If you're short on time to do your shopping, you might find it helpful to take the time early on to make that holiday gift list, noting the names of family members, friends, and work colleagues you want to include.

 It's useful to allocate your spending budget among the names on this list; jotting down gift amounts and then adding those numbers can show where you need to make adjustments. A real time-saver can be thinking of a class of gifts that you can give to all adult family members -- for instance, wallets, gloves, slippers, or scarves; sweaters or tee-shirts; books, tapes, or CDs; fruit baskets, a sample of condiments, or a wine selection. This approach may mean you only have to shop at one or a few stores or select from a few catalogs to get many of your gifts. 

 Selecting gifts from catalogs is increasingly popular, especially among busy people, who find the ability to "shop" at home, phone in orders, and have them delivered cuts down on stress. If you decide to shop through catalogs, it's important not to wait until the last minute when your selections may be sold out or the delivery can't be guaranteed. For those who are comfortable with the Internet, this type of shopping can also save you time. While many people use the Web to purchase airline tickets and tickets to musical and sports events, widespread electronic purchasing hasn't caught on yet, although the recent development of electronic "superstores" and other innovations may draw more customers. Web window shopping can be useful for getting ideas and for comparison shopping. 

 Whatever shopping method you choose, find out before ordering what the store's return policy is, and be sure to keep receipts so you or the gift recipient will be able to exchange or return merchandise more easily. Except for those super-organized individuals, it's not likely that your holiday shopping will be hassle-free, but advance planning and informed shopping can help cut back on the stress.