The Holiday Shopping Guide for Hard Times

Whether you’re unemployed, underemployed or self-employed -- or if you just haven’t gotten a raise in a while -- you’re probably feeling the effects of this economic downturn in one way or another. And yet the holidays are the holidays; you can’t just buy crappy gifts and tell people you’re broke. Well, you can, but wouldn’t you rather get great gifts that seem a lot more expensive than they are? Herewith, Andrea Woroch, a consumer-savings advisor for Kinoli, Inc. (owner of several money-saving websites, including freeshipping.org and giftcardgranny.com), reveals her top tips for shopping smart this holiday season.

1. Shop Online
Internet shopping over the holidays is expected to reach an all-time high as more consumers trust e-retailers and look to the Web to avoid massive crowds. The Internet also makes it easy to compare prices and find online coupons from sites like PromoCodes.us for additional savings.  Merchants are aware that e-commerce is on the rise, and are putting a lot of effort into it. Look for more online deals this season than ever before.

2. Download Apps
Smartphones can turn you into a smarter shopper. Before heading out to shop, download the following apps to help you detect deals and score discounts more easily:

  • Barcode scanning app RedLaser instantly provides price comparisons at online retailers and nearby stores           
  • CouponSherpa searches for digital coupons at stores near you
  • SalesLocator tells you what’s currently on sale in local stores

3. Socialize
Follow retailers on Twitter, like them on Facebook or check into their stores on FourSquare to stay on top of the latest deals and discounts. Many brands also release special offers exclusively to their social media fans.

4. Use Discount Gift Cards
Buy other shoppers’ unwanted gift cards for less than face value (some can be had at half price) from sites like GiftCardGranny.com. You can find discount gift cards for almost everything, from restaurants and department stores to travel services and movie theaters. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

5. Research Prices
Knowing how much a product costs before shopping any sale will help you determine the best values. Without this knowledge you could fall for a misleading promotion that really isn't much of a deal at all! So do your homework and compare prices. Try Google Shopping online or its smartphone app.

6. Price Match
Stores like Walmart and Best Buy have been offering price match guarantees for a long time. Sears and Home Depot are taking it a step further: The retailers will price match and offer an additional 10 percent off! You also want to watch out for price drops after you buy. Walmart recently announced that they will give credit to any shopper who found a better deal on a recent purchase from their store with a gift card worth the difference.

7. Buy from Flash Sale Sites
Flash sale sites typically offer high-end products at a huge discount. Gilt.com, for example, sells designer clothing for both sexes, as well as home and foodie items and travel discounts. If you have champagne taste on a beer budget, these sites can help satiate your designer craving without breaking the bank. However, it's easy to get caught up in the hype and urgency, and end up overspending on products you wouldn't otherwise buy. Patrons of these sites should have a list of what they really want and apply tunnel vision when searching for deals.

8. Join the Club
Shopping clubs are a trend this year, with retailers like Toys R Us and Kohl's offering benefits for shoppers who join their exclusive programs. The danger: Shoppers often have to spend a certain amount in order to get worthwhile rewards, which may turn into overspending.  However, if you regularly shop with a retailer offering one of these programs, go for it!

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/pierredesvarre

How to Survive the Holidays at Her House

Family and relationships: It’s a potent combination at any time of year. But during the holidays -- when expectations are high, history runs deep, and people who live happily apart all year are suddenly thrown together for hours or even days -- tensions can really skyrocket. Whether or not you’ve already met your significant other’s family, becoming part of their holiday traditions is new -- and potentially volatile -- territory. But with a little preparation, you can easily get through it … and maybe even win some coveted brownie points. Herewith, our survival tips for dealing with this most precarious time of year.

Tip No. 1: Talk to your girlfriend in advance.
Sari Eckler Cooper
, a psychotherapist and sex therapist, recommends you get your ducks in a row well before the visit. Ask your girlfriend which family members you’re likely to connect with, who you might want to keep a distance from, and what topics are off limits (like that estranged uncle in Chile). Discuss family traditions in order to avoid major surprises, and plan tactics for impressing her relatives. If they’re into singing carols, for instance, learn the tune to at least one -- and don’t be shy about humming it.

Tip No. 2: Arm yourself with gifts.
Don’t neglect to bring a thoughtful host gift. As soon as you step in the door, give your host or hostess an ornament, holiday cookies or flowers to set a positive tone from the outset. Whether you bring additional presents has everything to do with what her family does on the holidays (which, again, means talking to your girlfriend). Is there a major gift-opening ritual? If so, are all her relatives bringing you a little something? Or is it just her parents, who’ve got a more substantial present in the works? Your girlfriend can let you know what level of gifts to expect, and from whom, without ruining the surprise. Then prepare to come bearing the same level of gifts in exchange.

Tip No. 3: “Jingle” rhymes with “mingle.”
The most crucial part, of course, is the gathering itself. Even if you’ve gotten the total scoop from your girlfriend and have hunted down the perfect presents, it’s normal to be a little nervous. But don’t let your anxiety get the best of you. “A lot of guys freak out when they go to these family gatherings and glue themselves to the girlfriend because it’s comfortable,” says Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The Art of Charm, a company that teaches men social skills. “But it’s only comfortable for you.” No one’s going to hurt you; it’s a family gathering, after all. And she’ll probably find it annoying if she has to babysit you. As Harbinger puts it: “How would you feel if she followed you around during your family party and wouldn’t talk to any of your relatives? You’d be embarrassed.”

The easiest people to mingle with are the oldest and youngest relatives, says Cooper. “Children tend to be the most open to visitors and to having fun,” she explains, “and the adults will appreciate getting a break from them.” The elderly family members might not have the energy to run around in the yard with you, but they sure can talk a blue streak. “Try asking how they celebrated the holidays as a child or what their favorite holiday was,” recommends Cooper.

Tip No. 4: Lend a helping hand.
It is that do-good time of year, right? Aside from talking, a great way to interact is to help out with chores. It’s a sign to her relatives that they don’t have to treat you like a guest, and you’ll fit in with the family all the more easily. If you offer to give a hand in the kitchen and get turned down, suggest a quick run to the store to grab the buttermilk they forgot to buy. Or ask Mama G to show you how she makes her cookies so chewy. Whether she tells you or prefers to keep it her little secret, chances are she’ll have a soft spot for you forever.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/kzenon

The Ultimate Gift Guide for Dad

Do you even remember what you gave your dad last Christmas, or the Christmas before that? If you don’t, then he probably doesn’t either -- or doesn’t want to, anyway. This year, gift him one of the father-son experiences described below, or come up with one of your own. Either way, neither one of you will forget it anytime soon.

Rent a Beast
There may be a dad in America who doesn’t get a kick out of a Mercedes-Benz SLS with the gullwing doors or a gleaming new Porsche Panamera. It’s possible. But so is life on Venus. So why not take your dad’s car into the garage for a full wash, wax and detail, and rent some dream wheels for a day? Pick a cozy restaurant 200 miles away, set the GPS and just drive. Remember to bring a camera. He’ll want it framed.
BWRentACar.com

Get Tickets for Game Day
Whether it’s football, baseball or college basketball, there’s a sport that gets your dad’s blood pumping. So get tickets one day for just you and him. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the nosebleeds; you’ll yell and cheer and eat hotdogs. After all, this is why sport was invented: for fathers and sons to bond. Let it happen. 

Catch a Gig
Not all of the bands in your dad’s record collection are getting wheeled around nursing homes. Many are still performing. Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen all played this year -- and that’s just the B’s. Your dad will never forget the day you sent him down memory lane. And you know what? It beats Justin Bieber.
TicketLiquidator.com

Go Fish
Just because the snow’s thick on the ground doesn’t mean you and dad can’t go fishing. You just need to pack differently: mittens instead of a sunhat, a thermos instead of a cooler. To spend an afternoon on the ice, bobbing through crust for walleye or perch, has all the lazy bliss of summer fishing -- but with a dangerous edge. Quality time slows down on a lake, and conversation often veers into uncharted waters. As Herbert Hoover said, “All men are equal before fish.”

TakeMeFishing.org

Fix It
Fathers long for the day that their sons might ask to help build or mend something around the house. It doesn’t matter what it is -- fixing a motorbike, laying down some tile, mending a fence or building shelves. What matters is that you build more than just shelves when you work on a project like that together. Find that project, mention it to the old man and watch the happiness spread across his face. 

Shoot and Score
Here’s a Second Amendment remedy you can believe in: Shooting. It’s a blast. And it’s as American as apple pie. Spend a father-and-son afternoon on the firing range unloading with every kind of gun you ever saw on TV. If dad’s the NRA type, a day on the firing range is nothing short of a slice of heaven. But even if he’s not, he’ll still have the time of his life. Because all men are boys and all boys love guns.
NRAHuntersRights.org

Spend a Day at the Races
The sport of kings and degenerate gamblers, horse racing is also a great day out for the family. The sheer spectacle of the crowds, the thoroughbreds, the thundering hooves. The surge of excitement when the gates snap open and the galloping begins. Share a little flutter with the old man and shout yourself hoarse. If either one of you wins, it’ll be a day he’ll talk about for years. 

IlDado.com ; FrontRowKing.com

Be a Chef
The father-son team is a beautiful thing. At the holidays, even more so. So here’s how to do it, to be the son of all sons. Just as the giant family dinner looms, suggest to your dad that you and he make the dinner for a change. Just the two of you, a team of two. Your mother will love putting her feet up, and your dad, just watch him swell with pride. Top it off with matching aprons and chef’s hats.

Fly
Now, here is a good time that everyone should try at least once: Indoor skydiving in a vertical wind-tunnel. As a giant fan blows up at you, you’re above the ground, supported by a cushion of air. An instructor teaches you how to do somersaults, flips and tricks. You and your father can be an acrobatic sky troupe together, tumbling in unison.

IFlySFBay.com ; IFlyUtah.com ; IFlyHollywood.com

Go Rock ’n’ Roll Bowling
There are some things in life that are universally popular, regardless of age, gender or background -- like ice cream. Or a night of rock ’n’ roll bowling. Your dad may be a bowling fanatic, in which case this is a slam dunk. But even if he’s not -- and this is the beauty of bowling -- he’ll have a great time. It’s said that the families who bowl together, stick together. You could make it just a father-son thing, or get the whole family involved. Either way, Dad’s the team leader, needless to say.

Return to Work Way Ahead of the Game

My current situation:

About to embark on a weeklong international trip, where I’ll have little or no Web or cell access.

My dilemma:

My to-do list is shorter than it was yesterday, but there’s one thing I’ve yet to cross off: finishing this article. Oh, the irony.

I’ve always envied the organizational habits of friends who can leave for a vacation without spending as many hours preparing for their absence as they plan to spend being absent. Determined to master their secrets, I sought the counsel of some organizational pros, the sort of folks who always have perfectly sharpened pencils on their desks and impeccably labeled files in their cabinets.

Get Organized -- For Good

Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert based in Atlanta says the key to enjoying a holiday without leaving mayhem behind is to be organized all year round. “For people who work stressed out every day and then go on vacation for a week, the break will not do them any good.”

Even for those who are able to put work out of mind before a trip, Duncan is not hopeful about what they will encounter on their return: “They’ll have to deal with the week of chaos that built up because of how disorganized they are.”

Stay in Touch

John Trosko, a professional organizer based in Los Angeles, offered some (metaphorical) adhesive bandages. He says he urges people to maintain at least some contact with the office while they’re away. “How really unplugged from work do you need to be?” he asks. “When I was a production coordinator for Walt Disney Animation Studios, I had a coronary every time I went on vacation. Now, with our smartphones and laptops, it just feels a little easier.”

Give Access, Get Automated

Even for those who prefer to be “off-grid” while they’re gone, Trosko offers these bits of advice:

  1. Delegate to a good team.

    If within your control, have a good team in place to fulfill time-sensitive responsibilities while you’re away. And make sure outsiders know who to call for assistance with urgent queries.
  1. Share important documents

    with those who’ll need to access them via tools such as Google Docs or SharePoint.
  1. Allow an assistant to access your email

    while you’re gone so spam and non-important messages can be deleted before you return.
  1. Set up an auto response

    using keywords so that any emails pertaining to ongoing but mundane situations can be handled automatically.
  1. If your office is a mess, clean it.

    Typically operate using the excavating-though-a-large-desk-pile system? Ask yourself whether it’ll be as “logical” for others who might need to pitch in while you’re gone. Don’t count on your colleagues to be able to find everything they need all on their own. Before leaving, put all important items in one area -- ideally in a binder -- for easy access.
Hit the Return Key

And what about maintaining your sanity (and relaxation) post-vacation? Duncan has these pointers:

  1. Spend one day in the office the weekend before you’re due back at work.

    It’s worth giving up a day on your weekend so you can come back more calm. Just treat yourself to something special when you finish getting caught up.
  1. Schedule no meetings

    the first two days after your return.
  1. Arrive extra early

    -- before most of your associates arrive in the office -- on your first day back to work.

“I’ve systemized my business,” explains Duncan, who is also the author of The Time Management Memory Jogger. “Because I work smart all the time, I don’t ever feel like I have to take a break.”

I don’t know whether I’ll ever achieve Duncan’s level of Zen, but the good news -- at least for now -- is, I’ve still got a few hours to get to the airport, and this story is done. Even better, I now know how to make my next vacation a stress-free one before, during and after.