Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 9, 2011

Savvy shopper: Choose value over expense this holiday season

By TAMMIE TOLER
Princeton Times

PRINCETON — With Christmas lights twinkling and advent calendars dwindling, ‘tis the season for stressed-out shoppers and last-minute gift decisions — right?

Brooke Dunn, who created Four Seasons Savers, doesn’t think so. In fact, she says strategic shopping can help frustrated shoppers choose value over expense and give gifts that carry real meaning — all without breaking the holiday budget.

“I always tell people to consider gifts that are valuable over expensive. Too often, we get into a rut of giving our aunts a purse, our moms a sweater or our dads a tie. How many of those things do those people really need?” Dunn asked. “Giving a valuable gift would mean giving a gift of yourself, thinking about what means the most to this person at this point in their life.”

In order to select truly valuable gifts, Dunn suggested this week that shoppers spend a little time thinking about the lives of the recipients on their Christmas lists. For example, a young couple with a new baby probably doesn’t need matching sweaters for the whole family; they really need a chance to take a few deep breaths and relax.

In that instance, Dunn said the perfect gift might be a small gift card to the couple’s favorite coffee shop or restaurant, along with a “gift certificate” for two hours of free baby-sitting service.

“That’s going to have true value for that young couple, and they will make the most of that gift,” she said.

Dunn, a busy wife and mother of three, has made quite a name for herself as a smart shopper, but finding the best bargains and making wise shopping decisions didn’t always come easily for her.

“I was always a casual couponer, which meant that I would clip coupons, stuff them in my purse and hope that I could find them and they hadn’t expired when I tried to use them,” she said.

Then, in 2010, her husband, Daniel, got word that his company was laying off its entire sales staff, and his job was eliminated.

“We really examined everything in our budget,” Dunn said. “Then, one day, I really got excited because I still had a little guy in diapers, and my best friend called to tell me that I should by diapers at a certain store, because they had a brand name on sale with a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon.”

The couponing bug bit Dunn with that purchase, and soon after, as she recovered from a surgery, she passed time by researching the smartest ways to shop.

“Once I realized there was a whole different way to shop, I cut our entire budget by about 65 percent,” she said.

After she became a pro at shopping efficiently, Dunn realized the need for someone to teach local residents how to do the same, and after much prayer and thought, she decided to be that someone.

She started Four Seasons Savers, and the idea has really taken off locally.

This week, Dunn shared five strategies to make the most of your holiday shopping budget.

• Most importantly, have a budget — an overall holiday budget and one for each person on your gift list.

“A really big part of this is to try to pay for Christmas with cash,” Dunn said. “No matter how many sales and bargains you can find, if you pay interest on them all year, you haven’t really saved anything.”

Another factor in budgeting is to consider the assorted expenses you’ll incur while shopping. That includes fuel to get to the mall or stores and funds for eating out during the excursion.

“Most people eat out when they plan a shopping trip, so your eating-out budget is a factor,” Dunn explained. “If you and your spouse go shopping each Tuesday leading up to Christmas, you need to plan how you’re going to manage dinner that night, too.”

• In addition to traditional holiday sales, seek out extra retail savings.

For example, Dunn said, many manufacturers and retailers offer extra coupons online that may be used either in their online sites or printed from the sites and redeemed in person. Plus, many retailers are currently offering free shipping on purchases of certain amounts. Taking advantage of those makes online shopping more convenient and just as cost-effective as shopping in person.

In addition, many stores offer added values on purchases this season, particularly in fuel rewards.

Dunn cited one of her personal favorites. Through Dec. 11, Kroger is offering four times the typical fuel rewards on gift card purchases. That means that a typical $25 gift card to any retailer featured in Kroger’s gift card selection, will nab the purchaser 100 fuel points — enough to save 10 cents per gallon on one gasoline purchase at the Kroger Fuel Center. The store offers fuel rewards up to $1 per gallon on each trip to the gas station, which means that a family with an SUV could save $20 or more on a fill-up by purchasing gift cards during the promotional time.

“You don’t have to just buy gift cards that you plan to give other people, either,” Dunn said. “If you know you are going to shop at a store on a regular basis, and you can save yourself money by buying gift cards to that store, why not pick up a few extras for the basics?”

CVS and other stores offer similar programs involving fuel rewards.

Obviously, wise use of coupons can save consumers large amounts of money, particularly when coupons can be redeemed on a double-value day and paired with a sale already in effect.

Dunn said it is important examine the exemptions on coupons and to know each of your favorite stores’ policies on coupons and sales.

And, while we all instinctively crave the newest trends, Dunn said the best savings may be on the next-best thing. For example, rather than fighting Black Friday crowds for a chance at the newest television, computer gadget or game system, capitalize on the bargains available by purchasing the next-most-recent items.

“This sectional was our family’s Christmas gift last year,” Dunn said, pointing to the comfortable furniture in her family’s basement den. “We got a great deal on this because it was last year’s model, and it was a floor model. You’d be surprised what you can save if you pick up a floor model and one that’s not the absolute newest item available.”

• Think outside the gift box.

Dunn said December is the perfect time to give magazine and newspaper subscriptions, because they can be purchased at the current month’s rates and can be in effect for the full year. The same is true of gym memberships, and even online movie service subscriptions.

Gift baskets full of favorite, functional products are one of Dunn’s most treasured gift tips, and the strategy is a handy one for couponers.

“I put most of these together for $5 or less,” she said, pointing to four baskets — one each for a man of shaving age, a teen girl, an adult and even a teacher. “Most of these items came from my supply stock pile, and I got them on sale with coupons.”

Keeping a close eye on sale and coupon cycles makes gift baskets easier.

“Then, you just put essentials together for people at particular stages in their lives,” Dunn said.

• Understand credit cards.

“Beware, a big, huge beware,” Dunn said. “You really aren’t saving money if you end up paying interest through the year.”

Although Dunn is a believer in using a store credit card if it will save an extra percentage on the sale, she said it’s essential that consumers pay those debts down as soon as possible to avoid allowing interest and service charges to eat into their savings.

Another often-missed loophole to look out for involves same-as-cash offers, which allow customers to purchase big-ticket items like furniture and appliances over a period time without paying interest.

“Those are really good programs to take advantage of, but you need to remember that if you can’t pay for that item completely within that allocated time, the interest for the entire purchase will be accrued and added to your bill,” Dunn said.

• Take a step back and remember what Christmas is really about.

“It’s not really, really about the gifts,” Dunn said. “We get all caught up in getting everyone a gift, but it helps to realize that some of the best gifts are just the gifts of our time, just to sit and laugh and talk.”

To learn more about smart shopping and Four Seasons Savers, visit Four Seasons Savers Facebook site at www.facebook.com/FourSeasonsSavers.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.