It has become a holiday tradition to drag ourselves out of bed at 5 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving and line up outside the local discounter to score one of the "door-buster" deals.
Local film crews were certainly standing by. They set their alarms to get footage of bleary shoppers for the obligatory "Black Friday" story on the 486 early birds vying for $25 DVD players - of which there were exactly three available. "News at 11: Florida Woman Stampeded by Shopping Mob!" (A true story.)
Black Friday is the retail equivalent of Christmas, Valentine's Day, everyone's birthday, and Arbor Day rolled into one. It's the day that can make or break a retailer's year. (Though gangbuster Friday sales do not automatically translate into a successful year. See also: Christmas 2002.) The unwritten rules of Black Friday are thus: The retailer offers a percentage off already marked-down prices for items that are probably not on your shopping list, and you in turn load up on more stuff than you did last year. And remember to smile to the camera.
Just in case you missed the highlights, here they are:
- According to the 2003 Holiday Outlook report by RoperASW, gift lists include an average of 12 people.
- The same report says that Americans will spend an average of $929 on holiday stuff for loved ones.
- Retail monitoring specialist ShopperTrak estimates that $7.2 billion in merchandise was sold on Friday, a 4.8% improvement over last year.
- Those were the early birds -- the National Retail Federation says that 22% of people won't even hit the mall until December.
Ready? Set! Shop!
For a moment, I felt smug as I watched the frenzied, flush-faced shoppers on TV burdened by bags that weighed more than their extended family. I considered building a fire and sipping cocoa relishing my organized, meaningful, financially responsible holiday ways and particularly good parking spot.
Then it dawned on me that I'm not actually organized and that I've done nothing to insure a financially responsible holiday season. And that those ladies in line behind the field reporter on TV were getting all the good stuff (that no one I know needed, but still). As if to punctuate my momentary bout of superiority, I got a parking ticket.
Go ahead and bookmark this page so you can find it when reality ices over your warm sugar-plum-coated dream world.
Smugness in check, I decided that it was not too late to pull off an organized, meaningful, and financially responsible holiday. Next year will be different. Really. But right now it's time for holiday triage.
1. Revisit last year's expenses: I didn't do much to keep track of what I spent last year on holiday festivities. OK, I didn't do anything. But my lender sure did. Dig up your credit card statements from last year for a horrifyingly accurate account of the December damage. You can do one of two things now: Challenge yourself to spend less. Or challenge yourself to spend no more than you did. Ignore the shoppers on TV who say they feel good about the economy and appear to be bolstering it singlehandedly.
2. Actually make a list of giftees: I'm a natural list-maker, mostly because few things give me more pleasure than crossing off each item. Listing your lucky giftees and even a few ideas on what to get them will keep you from creating a logjam at the mall. (And for that, I thank you.)
3. Pick a spending target -- and try to stick to it: Next to each person's name, write a target dollar figure. (See your credit card statement for some spending guidelines.) Pick a range, and make it reasonable. Voilà, your holiday scorecard. (Sometimes sports metaphors work wonders.) If you are facing financial hardships that you weren't last year, make sure to aim low.
4. Don't dawdle: Malls are many a budgeter's downfall. 'Tis the season for temptation. With list in hand, you won't be tempted to wade through the crowds to pick up a little something for yourself. Even better is to avoid the bricks-and-mortar stores altogether and shop online. Gift wrapping. Card. Shipping. Click. Click. Click. Done. Done. And done.
5. Get something back: Go ahead and be a little bit selfish. Use one credit card for all holiday purchases -- and rack up the miles, cashback, or whatever reward comes with your plastic. (This recommendation is only for those who pay off their balances in full each month.) Not only will you have a record of what you spent for next year, but also you'll actually get something back.
6. Set a deadline: The holidays are really about being with the ones you love. It's hard to play board games with the kids or trim the tree when you're standing in line on Dec. 24. Set a firm deadline for your shopping, wrapping, shipping, and even house cleaning. You'll be a hero to your family if everything's done two weeks before the big day.
Then pour yourself a cup of cocoa, light the fire, and be smug. You've earned it.