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Grab free shipping, avoid gotchas and ditch guilt

By Christine Romans, CNN
Most people will appreciate your gift-giving, a psychologist says, so skip the guilt this holiday season.
Most people will appreciate your gift-giving, a psychologist says, so skip the guilt this holiday season.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Know real value -- not all "Black Friday" prices are true discounts
  • About 1,000 retailers will offer free shipping on December 17
  • Impulsive is out; sticking to a shopping list is in
  • Keep all your receipts and online confirmations and watch out for gotcha return policies

Editor's note: Christine Romans is anchor of CNN's "Your $$$$$" and author of the new book "Smart Is the New Rich" (Wiley).

New York (CNN) -- The deals are aggressive -- and early -- this year. Retailers want your money and are working hard to get you to reach into your pocket and fork over your hard-earned cash. They know the recession is over and consumers are tired of being frugal. They've adjusted to this New Normal.

Online retailers in particular are ramping up the marketing early this year. They are banking on 15 percent growth over last year, and about 85 percent of online retailers started holiday promotions two weeks ago.

That means deals and perks for you.

Never pay shipping

The National Retail Federation says four out of five retailers will offer free shipping at some point this year. Wal-Mart will not charge shipping for more than 60,000 products, Target has free shipping for 800,000 items when you spend $50 or more and Amazon will ship for free on purchases more than $25.

Be a code sleuth. Google your favorite retailer and "free shipping" for code numbers people have posted for free shipping. Try freeshipping.org or http://www.retailmenot.com/ for discount and shipping codes for 65,000 online stores. (And you can gauge the success rate of those codes.)

The individual retailers have fantastic e-mail specials for 20 percent off and free shipping, but you have to sign up, and it can inundate your e-mail box. To avoid temptation but still get the good deals, set up a separate e-mail address to give to retailers. Check it when you are ready to shop.

Wait

About 1,000 retailers will offer free shipping on December 17, with delivery in time for Christmas Eve. Go to freeshippingday.com to see which retailers have signed on.

And don't think just because it's a "Black Friday" deal, it's the lowest price of the season. According to dealnews.com, in the past several years some retailers have been jacking up prices before Black Friday, then lowering them with supposed "discounts."

Check online so you know whether it's a good deal. And remember, at most stores, being in line at 5 a.m. only guarantees you're with 500 other people getting shoved around. Many Black Friday deals will be beaten later in the season.

Make a list

Impulsive is out. Sticking to a shopping list is in. Don't get sucked into the holiday-retail hype machine and walk away with a bunch of things you don't need. Discuss your budget with your family, stick to that budget and think ahead of time about the gifts you'll be giving. Joel Waldfogel, author of "Scroogenomics," estimates $13 billion is wasted in this country every year on gifts people don't want. Choose carefully and stay focused and within your budget.

The gotchas

Watch out for restrictions, conditions and gotchas in the fine print. Back this year are those nasty restocking fees of 10 percent to 20 percent for electronics or unusual items you buy online. Keep all your receipts and online confirmations. Keep the item in the original factory box if you're going to return it and fight the restocking fee if the item is damaged, defective or not what you expected.

Layaway is also making a comeback, especially for people who have been booted by their credit card companies. Tread carefully and make sure if the price is lower later in the season, you can capture that price. And watch out for fees and restrictions.

Ditch the guilt

According to Consumer Reports, we will on average spend 15 hours shopping for holiday gifts this year and 42 hours altogether on holiday festivities with all the trimmings. So relax.

Clinical psychologist Jeff Gardere says there is no reason to feel guilty about your spending or your gift-giving this year.

"A lot of us have values around if we don't give the way we feel we should, that we do feel all this guilt," he says. "Trust me on this. As a psychologist, I can tell you a lot of that guilt is self-imposed guilt. Because whatever you're giving, most people will appreciate it."

CNN's Jennifer Icklan contributed to this report.

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