Q & A With Jean Chatzky, Financial Editor of NBC's TODAY:


What's the best way to save the most money this holiday?
Jean: We're seeing stores run a lot of sales. Early in the season. Through the season. You should absolutely understand how likely things are to be discounted. And then wait by until they are. There's also not a lot of need to pay for things such as shipping. And if you can be a little brand agnostic -- you don't really care what brand it is -- you can certainly save yourself money by being willing to cross over from one store to another, depending on who's offering the bigger discounts.
And from a behavorial standpoint?
Jean: From a behavioral standpoint, the best way to make sure you don't go overboard during the holidays is to [know] what you can afford to spend and then make a list where you write down the names of all the people that you are planning to buy for -- how much you're planning to spend on each one -- and stick to it. And that sort of organized approach can really help people.

It also really helps to not wait until the last minute. The last minute not only gets people into a bit of a frenzy where they overspend because they're in store or online and they just have to buy something now. But if you do end up paying for shipping, if you wait until the last minute, you're going to pay more.
Are online and in-store finally marching to the beat of the same sales drum?
Jean: I think that they are in most cases. Over the past weekend, as I watched sales on Cyber Monday, but also on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, a lot of the deals were across the board. A lot of the same merchandise was available at the same time. Now, that's not necessarily every door-buster. Some will only be available in the store ... or online.
Should people do all their shopping for the year between Thanksgiving and New Year's given the deals?
Jean: For the whole year? I don't think so. I've always been a fan of buying wrapping paper after the holidays are over when it's 50-percent off. Nothing about wrapping paper changes from one year to the next. Same with Christmas cards or holiday cards. If you find a card that you love in late December or early January and it's marked way, way down, should you buy it and put it away until next year? Sure.
Is the line blurrier than ever between the words "want" and "need"?
Jean: I think it's always been blurred. I think people have a very difficult time separating the things they want from the things they need. I have a book of money rules. One of my favorites is that the best cost cutting tool is a good night's sleep ... Walk away from a purchase and think about why [you're] so intent on buying it ... come back one day later and it's still going to be there whether you're shopping online or at a store. That sort of perspective can give you the breathing space you need to figure out if it's truly something that you need or really, really want.
Other than a night's sleep before buying, how can people keep their holiday spending in check?
Jean: I have a few other money rules that can help. Shopping is just an emotional thing. I have three rules I call the shopping trifecta. Money rules #42, #43 and #44. Don't shop angry. Don't shop sad. And don't shop hungry.

When we shop angry, anger it turns out makes us more optimistic and more likely to take risks than we would ordinarily be. Which means we're more likely to make impulse purchases. It's the same reason you shouldn't invest money when you're angry. Sadness feels like a big void, a big hole. People will do just about anything to fill that up. That's why sadness causes people to overeat during the holidays, but it also causes them to over-shop. A lot of stores hand out free samples during the holiday time -- fruitcake, champagne, crab dip whatever -- you start snacking on those things and get your brain going a bit ... Once your juices get flowing in a very literal sense, you buy more of absolutely everything.
Shouldn't it be called Red Friday -- given that's when lots of people will go into debt?
Jean: That would probably not be such a bad thing. It's true though. I think a lot of people go into debt. The whole crowd mentality of it. People running through the stores and trying to grab at limited amounts of things. I mean really, it plays into our lizard brains. You take a picture from the hunter gatherers who had to kill it, cook it, and eat it. I mean that's what we're doing in those stores.
"Cyber Monday" was this week. Has the Internet been good for people's spending habits, or worse?
Jean: Both. I think the Internet is a wonderful research tool. I think it really levels the playing field. I mean tools like Price Grabber. Like couponing sites. Edmunds.com. Cars.com... I mean all of those sites, they can enable you to see what you should actually be paying for stuff. That's not information that people have always had. Using the Internet to research your purchases is a wonderful use of the Internet.

Has it been bad? Yes, I think it's also been bad. In a way, it's too easy. It's very easy to sit down and if you're signed up for one-click ordering on Amazon, there's so little thought that go into any of those purchases. I don't know the percentages on the number of Internet purchases that are returned versus from an actual store, but I'd be very interested in seeing them.
Stuff one good morsel of optimism into everybody's holiday stocking ... now.
Jean: It's not just the season of buying, but it's the season of giving. Your charitable donations typically go in this time of year. That actually causes people to feel really, really good. If you give back particularly to a cause you believe in, you get a big boost to your psyche. It makes you feel very happy and useful going into the new year.
Jean Chatzky
Like this advice? Check into Jean Chatzky's Money School, a college-style online person finance course series taught by Jean to help you get your finances on track. Learn more at her website. Follow her on Twitter @JeanChatzky.

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