More ways to not pay cash

Free or reduced-price gift cards are a great way to stretch your shopping budget. SonyaAnn, a reader in Illinois who blogs at A Mom, Money, and More, snared several freebies this year:

  • A $10 Target card from Bank of America, for being a long-term customer.
  • A $15 AutoZone card, for buying more than $100 worth of replacement parts.
  • A $50 Visa gift card, for switching natural-gas suppliers.

Most of her shopping scrip comes from taking online surveys and through rewards programs such as Swagbucks and MyPoints.

She's not the only one. Swagbucks sees "a spike in redemptions across all categories" at this time of year, according to spokesman Scott Dudelson. Members cash in for gift cards but also for small gifts and stocking stuffers.

"Members (contact) us all the time letting us know that we paid for their holidays," Dudelson says.

Consumers may forget about other sources of gift cards, such as hotel loyalty programs or credit cards. Christine Frietchen of ConsumerSearch.com suggests frequent-flier miles as another gift source. If the miles will expire because you're not flying enough, why not cash them in?

"People may not realize that you can get other things with (miles)," says Frietchen, who's considering trading in 13,000 miles for a $100 Pottery Barn gift card.

That card could be used to shop or could serve as a stand-alone present. It could also be sold on the secondary market. (Read "Instant savings on holiday shopping.") Note that some of the money earned from such a sale would make a swell gift, too. A college student or an unemployed in-law would likely be happier with $25 cash than with another scented candle.

Stretch your buying power

Discounted gift cards pop up regularly on daily deal and social commerce sites. Up-and-coming sites are likely "to run (great) national offers to build their customer base," says Karen Hoxmeier of deal site MyBargainBuddy.com. That's why we've seen a rash of cards to places like CVS and Subway.

Overwhelmed by all the choices? Use a deal aggregator such as Yipit, Monster Offers or DealGator to get only the kinds of offers you'd consider (yes to pedicures, no to monster-truck tickets). You can sort by price as well as category.

You're generally not going to find über-cheap deals on a social-commerce site. Remember, we're talking about spending $100 total. But exceptions do exist. In recent months, SonyaAnn, of A Mom, Money, and More, has gotten several $10 CVS gift cards for $5 apiece from daily deal sites. She'll use them to shop for presents, stretching that buying power even further by using coupons, loss leaders and the CVS ExtraBucks loyalty program.

"Giving is important to me. It would just break my heart to leave somebody out," says the blogger, who buys for up to 75 people each year.

There's no CVS where I live, but I'll watch for deals at other drugstores. In the past, I've gotten loss leaders and free-after-rebate toys, makeup, fancy teas and a 64-count box of Crayolas. (Don't you just love that new-crayon smell?)

Is Black Friday worth it?

I'll be in the minority, though. According to a new survey from deal site Ebates, only 34% of Americans will shop at brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday. That's understandable, since the crowds are often overwhelming and may even be deadly.

Check the ads, and weigh the aggravation/risk. A few years ago a relative told me she wanted a shredder. My Christmas gift to her was free after a rebate at Staples.

Don't be a Black Friday bumbler: Organize your deals with price-comparison and coupon websites (read "Nab a $19 discount in 80 seconds"), and with free apps that do everything but stir your coffee.

For example, FatWallet.com's "Black Friday Deal Finder" sorts deals by price, notes the availability of free shipping and rebates, and will tell you whether an item can be had online versus waiting in line. You can even set the price to "zero," and the app will show all listed deals that are outright free or free after rebate.

Keep in mind that some great holiday deals won't happen right on Black Friday. According to trend mapping at Savings.com, there's an 80% increase in online deal volume during Thanksgiving week.

And if you're still planning some online Black Friday shopping? Take a long nap after that turkey dinner. Most deals will start at midnight on Thanksgiving, Savings.com CEO Loren Bendele says.

A word about re-gifting

Some people hate re-gifting, and others think it's a frugal/green alternative. Follow your conscience, and try not to get caught.

A few more tips:

  • "Shop" on social media. Freebies abound on Facebook and Twitter. (Read "Free samples: Candy to condoms.")
  • Use price matching. Go online to find the lowest prices, then print out your findings and take them to a store that will meet advertised prices, such as Target or Wal-Mart. "Get all your shopping done in one place," "Saving Savvy" author Hancock says. That will save you time, gas and money.
  • Watch for coupons. J.C. Penney often mails good ones, such as "$10 off any purchase of $10 or more." Hallmark puts coupons in magazines. Keep your eyes peeled.
  • Forget stamps. Send free e-cards instead of paper ones. I'm still snickering over the "Elf Yourself" animated greetings.
  • Forget wrapping paper. Use the Sunday funnies, and recycle them after Christmas morning. Don't get the paper? Harvest comics from coffee shops on Mondays.
  • Save those codes. I've used the My Coke Rewards program to get free gifts like movie tickets, a NASCAR cap, magazine subscriptions, a T-shirt and a set of barbecue tools.
  • The curse of the mom. That's the practice of using gift cards we got for our birthdays to pay for Christmas gifts for other people. If you're on a tight budget, do what you need to do.

The holidays are emotionally fraught, making it hard to step off the consumerist merry-go-round. Oh, you can talk a good game: Commercialism is ruining Christmas. There's no need for elaborate Hanukkah gifts. Kwanzaa should be about family.

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Yet you're subtly or overtly pressured to come across with the goods.

Maybe the noise comes from your kids. After all, they're bombarded with media e and peer pressure. It's up to you to set the standard over what we do and don't "need." (One way to do that is to turn off the TV.)

Maybe you're invited to big family gatherings that mean gifts for 30 people. Or maybe you're pressuring yourself, because, darn it, you like to give presents.

You can still do that. Just do it responsibly.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").