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What? Christmas toy lists already?!

Two major retailers have already come out with their lists of must-have playthings. Early warnings are just one of the changes in the way we shop.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 18, 2013 1:02PM
Teddy Bear (Fancy/Veer/Corbis/Corbis)Wondering what toys your kids will want this year? Wal-Mart has a pretty good idea because it asked the experts: 1,000 children. The kids were invited to play with toys during a three-day focus group in Dallas.

The 20 most popular playthings became the "Chosen By Kids" list, released Sept. 12. Toys R Us wasn't far behind, releasing its "Hot Toy List" today.

It's tempting to grumble about the holidays being ruined by such early advertising. We haven't even had Halloween yet and you're talking Christmas? But the toy list releases were no earlier than it was last year -- and consumers are, in part, responsible for the recent marketing shift.

That's because we seek deals all year long rather than just during the holidays, according to a white paper released last year by online coupon site RetailMeNot. Merchants have responded to this tendency by publishing hot prices well before Thanksgiving.

Toys are the most visible -- and fraught -- symbol of holiday gift-giving. Some parents obsess over the "it" toys of the year: standing in line on Black Friday, searching stores for weeks, paying inflated prices to eBay entrepreneurs who read the same toy lists and invested in Furby futures.

Thus a September toy list can give consumers a heads-up. If you know your kid would adore something that's predicted to sell out early, you’ll know not to wait until mid-December to buy it. But because the current price is almost certainly not the best, you'll save some money by waiting at least a little while.

Deal, or no deal?
The manufacturer prices attached to those lists are invaluable, according to Trae Bodge of RetailMeNot, because they let you know when a sale is actually a sale.

"If you don't know the price," she says, "you don't know if you're really getting a good deal."
Another trend is to start holiday shopping well before November; this was the case for almost four in 10 consumers interviewed by RetailMeNot last year. It's one way to stay out of debt because you pay cash as you go.

Unfortunately, you're less likely to find great prices in September and October. If you must spread out your buying over the next three months, use a price comparison website to get the best possible deal.

Shopping online? Check coupon sites like, Coupon Cabin or RetailMeNot to get percentage-off and free-shipping codes.

Smarter spending

A tool like FatWallet's Black Friday Deal Finder can help, since it sends information on early November discount trends along with prices from leaked ads. (The tool is available in both online and smartphone versions.)

FatWallet spokesman Brent Shelton predicts many ads will be available by the first week in November and most by the second week.

"Unless you're the kind of person who just has to get (shopping) done and out of the way, I would at least wait until those Black Friday ads come out. Right now you've got nothing to compare it to if they say (something) is on sale," Shelton says.

A few more tips to keep in mind:
  • Make a total budget. Not just gifts, but also traditional foods, decorations, travel costs, and special events like tickets for "The Nutcracker."
  • Fund that budget. Maybe you were smart enough to set money aside all year long for the holidays. If not, look for ways to trim other spending categories or to make a little extra money.
  • Make conscious choices. If you feel holiday spending has gotten out of hand, it probably has. Consider cutting the number of presents, setting limits on gift exchanges or limiting presents to those under 18 or over 80.
  • Pay as you go. Never charge more than you can pay off when the bill arrives.
  • Stop! When you've crossed all items off your gift list, quit shopping. Seriously: Stay out of the stores. It's easy to overspend because the holidays are so psychologically loaded -- and because marketers know how to push your buttons.
Readers: When will you start your holiday shopping?

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