When the Mafia Wars and Farmville games first rolled out on Facebook, I didn’t participate. In fact, I actively blocked all of those posts and updates from my stream. Now that Google + has rolled out games in a separate stream, I decided to see why people get so addicted to these games. As I played, I understood the addiction and the temptation to spend real money on virtual stuff.

Monsters and Farms?
I chose the game Monster World, which looks pretty similar to Farmville. I plant, harvest, and sell crops to earn coins, which I then use to hire helpers, decorate the farm, and buy more plots. Each level up affords new opportunities to expand or interesting new crops to plant. That part is fun, and addictive. It’s easy to spend an hour clicking to harvest and watch the points pile up.

In addition to offering a market where you can sell, the game also sends a robot buyer that generally offers more coins per crop, but he only buys certain things and sets a time limit.

You can earn additional points by completing tasks, like building a crib. Tools for the crib are found by harvesting, by asking a friend to send you one, or by buying them with real money.

You Want Me to Spend Real Money?
The game has two forms of currency: coins and cash. You earn coins, you buy Monster Cash with real money. Some of the items I could buy were only available with Monster Cash. So I clicked the link to see what it was about. $80 Monster Dollars cost $11.50 real dollars. For that $11.50, I can buy a large virtual fountain, that will earn me 70 “happiness points” and 105 star points. The star points help me level up, which unlocks additional crops or stuff I can buy. Happiness points earn me the right to plow more plots.

But, really, why do I need to spend $11.50 to buy fake decorations that will earn me the ability to plant fake crops from which I will earn fake coins? I don’t see any option to cash out and make real money from this game.

The task to build a baby crib includes a crying monster baby (not a sound, just an image.) If I don’t want to wait to find the tools I need, I can buy them for just $32 Monster Dollars. If $40 Monster Dollars cost $5.75, I would have to spend $5 real dollars to build a fake crib for a fake baby.

When I saw that baby cry, my heart started to race. What would happen if I didn’t get the crib built quickly enough? Would the baby go away? Would I lose points? Should I spend the money to buy the tools?

I’m too frugal to actually give in to the temptation, but I could see how the game created a false sense of urgency that would prompt me to spend real money to fix whatever issue had developed.

Instead I’ll Just Spend Real Time
At one point, my worker’s went on strike because I’d plowed more plots than they were willing to work. I had to buy decorations to earn happiness points. Decorations bought with Monster coins earn fewer happiness points, so instead you spend more time. One available crop is ready for harvest in one minute. That crop produces two plants. Those plants sell for two coins each. When I saw my plots blocked off, and the time ticking down on a potential buyer, I did a quick calculation. If I spent an hour planting all 20 of my available plots with those crops, I could grow 2400 plants, which would sell for 4800 coins.

But let’s think about that. Let’s say I get paid $20 an hour. I would essentially be spending $20 to earn 4800 fake coins. Why would I waste my time that way?

Yet people do it, every day. A woman shook her baby to death because he interrupted her Farmville game with his crying. Now that’s an extreme, but I’ve also seen friends posting endless status updates on Facebook about their Farmville accomplishments. They spent hours playing the game.

So What Do We Get from these Games?
What do we derive from these games that makes us willing to waste time and potentially spend real money on virtual stuff? I think it’s two things: 1. the false sense of urgency that comes from a waiting buyer or striking worker, and 2. a sense of accomplishment. You’ve harvested your crops and earned points and your friends can come see what you did. (I don’t have any friends playing and I’m ignoring the game’s plea to invite them.)

But really, if you think about it, what have you accomplished? When I post on Facebook about my latest gardening success, I’m talking about a real success. Something I planted with real hands and tended with real effort. All I’m doing in Monster World is clicking a mouse. Clicking a mouse is not an accomplishment. My cat can click a mouse. A one-year-old can click a mouse.

Ultimately, the time spent on Farmville type games is no greater accomplishment than watching TV. So, next time you’re tempted to spend real money on one of these games, go see if there’s something else you’d rather be doing. If you want to do something for a sense of accomplishment, maybe it’s time to buy a real plant.

 

About a month ago, my husband and I realized that we seem to watch more TV during the summer when there’s supposedly “nothing on.” In fact, it got so bad that I was eager for the fall season to start so I’d have less to watch (which actually isn’t true, it’s just spaced better.) When I realized that I was resenting the shows I watched, or not paying attention, I decided to take action and reclaim some of my time.

Set Priorities
The first thing I did was set priorities. Is this episode of Weeds more important to me than an hour of writing time? No, so I taped Weeds and can watch when I’m doing other stuff.

Here are my priorities:
Clean the house for company – did that while “watching” Top Chef. I really only care about the end of each episode anyway at this point.
Write – I’m trying to finish a personal project by September 6, but I can only write from 9-10 p.m., so that’s my sacred writing time. I don’t surf the internet, read email, or watch TV during that time. I save the TV for later and avoid doing the former as much as possible. It works.
Hem the drapes – I pinned them while “watching” Psych last night. I’ll start sewing the others a little at a time while I watch TV from 10-11 each night or while catching up on movies this weekend. I love holiday weekends!
Paint the bathroom – obviously, this can’t be done while watching TV, so I’m just going to dive in.

I have lots of other projects, but these are my priorities. Once I realized that I wasn’t really invested in all those TV shows anymore, it was easy to watch them while doing other things. At this point, some of them merely serve as background noise while working on various projects. When I made my slipcovers, I watched several seasons of Deadliest Catch and quite a few movies, just to have the noise. It worked perfectly.

Do You Watch to Watch or Because You’re Bored?
And other shows, well, I’ve just cut them. Wipeout is my guilty pleasure at the start of each summer, but by about eight episodes, it gets redundant. I’ll catch a few minutes here and there, but I feel no guilt for deleting them from the DVR unwatched now. Other shows, like Burn Notice and Eureka, I watch to watch. Those I set time aside for.

I tend to be more involved with the shows I watch in the winter and fall, but I’m actually more selective with those. For example, I’ve decided not to add any new programs this year. Last year I added Modern Family, V, and Caprica, but I’m rather relieved that the latter two aren’t coming back until spring and may not end up watching them anyway. I’m realizing that my time is worth more to me than those shows. When I’m bored, I’ll watch something off the DVR, but I don’t turn on the TV in primetime and watch whatever’s on anymore. Sorry, TV, you’re just not that interesting anymore.

TV is a time-suck for me. You might have other time sucks. If you feel like you’re wasting time, think hard about your priorities. Are there are other things that are more important? If yes, then start by reducing the amount of time you spend on the activity. Then skip it a week. If you don’t miss it, keep skipping it. There, you just got your time back. If you do miss it, then you might have to reconsider your priorities.

What About What Other People Think?
For some reason, people in my office don’t talk about TV. Either they rent them all on DVD after the season is over, or we have other things to talk about. My husband’s office does talk about TV, but usually it’s not an issue. You just have to find other things to talk about. Some people may even be impressed that you watch so little TV!

This is mostly about time management, but it also applies to personal finance. Every week, I create a To Do list in my notebook. It includes my usual weekly tasks (because I like crossing things off lists, not because I worry I’ll forget to buy groceries), the TV shows I plan to watch, events I plan to attend, as well as the things I need/want to do. I never mark off all the things on the list, though, because I make other things a priority.

Choosing Between Priorities
This weekend, for example, I wanted to do several things:

  • Go for a hike with my best friend
  • Paint my powder room
  • Make curtains
  • Paint a box for the bathroom
  • Work on a writing project.

Obviously, I had to narrow that list down, because there was simply no way to do it all and still have time with my husband.

So, I figured out which was most important to me.

I’d already agreed to the hike, and it was her birthday, so that was easy. Plus I got exercise, which I needed. Working out was also on the list!

The writing project was next on my list because I’ve given myself a personal deadline for it.

After taking care of some other household chairs, the other three things on the list didn’t happen. They’ll move to next week’s list.

Tips for Setting Priorities
If you’re deciding on priorities for your budget or your time, it’s all about calculating the relative importance.

My best friend is more important than my curtains. My writing project is also more important than my curtains, but less important than my best friend. If I had a paying deadline, the writing project might take the top spot.

If you’re budgeting, your rent/mortgage and other bills are priorities, whereas the vacation savings can wait.

If you’re choosing between purchases, or budgeting your spending money, decide which is more important to you. Do you need to buy the shoes more or can those wait so you can add to your vacation savings? Should you go out to eat or would it better to eat at home so you don’t have to put the movie tickets on the credit card?

Here are five questions to ask yourself before taking an action:

  1. Is this a want or a need?
  2. Is this related to an obligation?
  3. Is this related to a personal or financial goal?
  4. Can I do afford this without stretching my budget?
  5. Is the benefit greater than the cost?

For the hiking trip, the excursion was a want. The exercise was a need. It was an obligation, because I’d already agreed to go. It wasn’t related to a goal. It was free, so no cost. Definitely had a lot of benefits!

The Benefits of Setting Priorities
Obviously, we all want to do more than we have time for, and most of us want to do more with our money than we reasonably can. So, it comes to making choices. Priorities help make those choices easier. Most people, including me, have goals in the backs of their minds. By consciously prioritizing those goals and writing them down, you can more easily prioritize the other choices you have to make instead of taking an action and then realizing later that it was a mistake.

Every Thursday night, I pack up my laptop and files and tote them home with me for Work from Home Friday. At first, it took some getting used to. Now I find I’m much more productive when I work from home. I still value my time in the office – it’s easier to have an impromptu discussion in the kitchen if you’re all in the same kitchen – but I consider Fridays to be “Get Things Done” day. Here’s how I do it:

Set Up a Real Home Office
I don’t have kids and my cats sleep most of the day, so I don’t have those distractions, but I still prefer to work in my home office rather than at the kitchen table or on the couch. For one thing, I hate typing on laptops, so I turn on my laptop for reference, but do the bulk of my work on my home computer and upload it to the office server. I’m also more tempted to turn on the TV or wander off if I work outside my office.

Get Your Coworkers on IM or Skype
My office already uses IM to communicate while we’re at work, so we’re also on IM at home. Skype is growing in popularity for regular telecommuters because it allows for a free virtual water cooler. If you don’t have either, stay in touch by email and phone when you have questions.

Train Your Pets and Humans
When I first started working from home, I had just finished grad school, so the cats figured I would interact with them as much as before. It took some time, but they’ve now learned that they can’t jump on my keyboard while I work or attack me when I’m on the phone. Until your pets learn this lesson, save documents often and invest in a phone with a mute button. Humans may be harder to train, but if you have kids old enough to understand, let them know that you shouldn’t be disturbed except in a real emergency (define emergency for them.) Check in every hour or so when you get up to stretch.

Don’t Become the Neighborhood Gal Friday
If your neighbors learn you work from home, they may ask to have packages delivered to you when they’re not home, or drop by for coffee unannounced, or ask you to watch their kids while they run to the store. The answer to all of these is no (unless you frequently have packages delivered to them.) Gently remind them that you are actually working and have deadlines to meet or your employer won’t continue to employ you. That said, I’ve been know to use my “lunch hour” to run errands on Friday morning when I get them done faster and then have the rest of the day to concentrate.

Start on Time
This may not matter to some people, but I find it easier to get into “work mode” if I maintain the same general hours I do in the office. I might start a little earlier or work a little later, but I don’t stretch it too far. It helps me maintain the work/life balance.

Don’t Forget to Take Breaks
When you’re in the office, you probably move around a lot due to interruptions from co-workers, restroom breaks, or a run to the kitchen for more coffee. I find that my butt is in the chair longer when I work from home, so I have to remind myself to get up and stretch. I go to the gym near my office four days a week, but I also try to do a short home workout mid-day on Fridays to stretch my neck and get my energy up.

I’m fortunate that my employer sees the value in working from home and is flexible about it. If your employer isn’t ready to take the leap, ask for a trial run to prove just how productive you can be away from the office.

It’s mid-February and my taxes are already done. Not only are they done, but I’m actually getting money back, which came as a surprise. Part of that is because I used free online software to prepare my taxes. The services found deductions that I might have missed. This year, it took me twice as long to prepare my taxes – two hours instead of one – because I used two services as a comparison. More details on that tomorrow. Today, I focus on how filing taxes online saves money.

Remember, even if you don’t owe taxes, you must file a return this year in order to qualify for the tax rebate being provided by the government this summer.

File Taxes Online Free with the IRS
The simplest way to file federal taxes online is to go to the IRS website and click the Free File button. If you owe taxes and adjusted gross income was less than $54,000 this year, then this system is for you. Unfortunately, this system is not currently available for those filers who don’t actually make enough to owe taxes but need to file for the rebate. Check back in early April to see if it’s available then. Or you could file form 1040A on paper now. Personally, I’d give the IRS a little more time to update the software before resorting to paper.

File Taxes Online Free with Other Services
If you don’t qualify for the IRS free file program, review their list of e-file partners. Several offer free federal e-filing, although they do charge for the state. Go down the list and click through to view the offers. Spend a little extra time at each site to see if there are other offers that don’t appear on the splash page. For example, TaxAct show their fee-options on the splash page, but if you click over to the main page, you’ll find the free option.

The IRS Free File program doesn’t complete state taxes. If you live in an income tax state, check with your local tax board to see if they have free online tax software. If not, you can paper file in your state or pay to use the software.

Compare Prices and Pay to File
California is an income tax state and a complicated one at that, so I use the pay software to also complete my return. However, I don’t use the most expensive service. When it comes to these services, they’re generally equal (as you’ll see tomorrow), but their prices are not. I would look for a reasonable offer from a robust site and use that one. If you’re concerned that it won’t be up to the task, you can usually use the software without paying. Prepare your taxes once on the cheap site and once on the expensive site. If the returns are the same, use the cheaper option.

Use the Same Service Annually to Save Time
As a bonus time saver, use the same service every year. If you’ve used them in the past, the system will copy over your old information. So, if you haven’t moved, changed employers, or changed your dependents, you can simply click to confirm that information is still accurate and then enter new wage and withholding information. If your information has changed, updating it is simple.

Run Through the Deluxe Q&As
Some services provide tax Q&A screens if you’ve had major life events. I’ll show you more on that tomorrow, but it’s always worthwhile to check the boxes for your major changes and run through the questions. You may discover that you’re owed deductions or credits you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. Common deductions include medical costs, moving expenses, excess social security deposits, adoption fees, and more.

Avoid an Audit
Finally, these services help you avoid an audit by checking your return for errors and flags. Now, this doesn’t save you money directly, but you will have to miss time at work and travel to an IRS office if you do get flagged for an audit. The screens reduce your chances of being flagged for an audit, unless of course you lie on your taxes.

Never Accept a Refund Anticipation Loan
Refund anticipation loans are rip-offs of the same order as payday loans. When you file online and use direct deposit, your refund will appear in your bank account within five to fourteen days. In some cases, it can take that long for the anticipation loan application to process, and you’ll have to pay additional fees and interest on that loan. Even if you get approved immediately, you still have to pay exorbitant fees of $30-90, plus interest of 178-700%.

Filing taxes is never fun, but with online software it almost feels that way. I love watching that little refund number in the corner go from red to green. This year it meant that we paid almost exactly the right amount in withholding, which means we didn’t loan the government much money. That’s the best savings of all!

I’m not someone who thinks TV is bad, but I recognize that it can easily absorb a whole afternoon if you’re not careful. Studies have shown that watch TV produces alpha waves, which are the same waves produced when you meditate. That’s why it’s so easy to watch a night of silly sitcoms without realizing it.

At the same time, I find that some shows get me thinking and create interesting conversations. I don’t want to give up TV entirely – there are certain shows my husband and I enjoy together – but I do want to watch less junk. I also wouldn’t mind cutting my cable bill.

Here are my tips for learning to watch less TV:

Keep a Cable Log
Last spring I kept a viewing log for a month in order to pinpoint my viewing habits. Right now it’s more challenging to figure out which shows you do actually want to watch because so few of them are on, but a cable log is still a good way to keep track of where you’re wasting time.

To keep my log, I put a notebook in the living room near the TV. Every time I turned on the TV, I noted the time, what channel was on, what show I watched, and whether I did anything else while watching. I also noted the time I turned the TV off.

Highlight the Shows You Actually Watched and Like
When reviewing my log, I discovered that I intentionally viewed about 50 hours of TV a month, but the TV was on for 85 hours. I also discovered that I never watched several of the premium channels we subscribed to. Those have now been cancelled. Of those 50 hours, probably 16 of them were the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. I discovered that I had a lot more free time when those two shows were off the air this winter, but I also really missed them! Now that they’re back, I watch them during dinner.

Set an Appointment to Watch TV
If there are specific shows you like to watch, make an appointment to watch them. Turn the TV on when the show starts, then turn it off when the show is over. In the fall, I was down to five shows a week (plus DS and CR). At this point, I watch 3-4 a week, but soon that will be just one or two. When/if TV returns in the fall, I plan to stick to just 3-4 shows a week.

Hide the Remote
If you tend to channel surf when you’re bored, make the remote difficult to access. Keep it in a box across the room or another room entirely. Serious TV addicts might want to lock it up. That will force you to think about whether or not you really want to watch TV. If you’re just trying to kill time, do something else. Read a book, exercise, play a game with your family, do something other than letting yourself lose four hours to mindless TV viewing.

Cancel Cable and Rent Shows
With most past seasons of popular shows now available on DVD, you can cancel cable and then rent the DVDs when it’s convenient for you. Even shows like MythBusters and Food Network series are on DVD. Your library, video store, or Blockbuster and Netflix most likely have many of the shows you’d want to see.

By cancelling cable, you also give yourself fewer options for channel surfing. If you don’t have a digital television, you’ll need to buy a digital converter by February 2009 or you won’t be able to receive any television. The government is operating a digital television coupon program to reduce the cost of the converters. Of course, if you want to stop watching TV entirely, cancelling cable and using an analog television without a converter will be a great way to go cold turkey!

Buy a Tiny TV
My best friend doesn’t have cable and only watches a few network shows, so she uses a 13-inch TV. The screen is so small that it doesn’t encourage lazy viewing. If you find yourself watching too much TV, buy a smaller TV and then sit all the way across the room. You’ll probably find yourself watching very little TV after a week of miserable squinting.

I was able to watch less TV simply by being more aware of my viewing habits, but you might need to take more drastic action if you have a serious TV addiction.

How do you feel about your viewing habits? Is the strike making it easier to watch less TV?

In addition to lists, I like financial software. I started using Quicken back in 1997 and have used it ever since. When I was in charge of paying the bills, I also had a system to remind me to pay the bills so I never missed a payment and always had the money ready to pay it. Here are the integral parts of my good financial system. If you want to set up good financial systems, you should adopt some or all of these practices yourself.

Financial Software
For me, financial software is the key to managing my money. I still use Quicken 2005, but they release an upgrade every year. I don’t use the tax planning portion of the program, so an outdated edition works well for me. I fear we may have to upgrade this year, though, because my husband has been having trouble downloading the statements. We might also consider switching to Mint or one of the new online programs, but so far the old Quicken works most of the time and we can deal with its quirks.

Auto Pay
If you have recurring bills and a credit card with no debt on it, charge as many recurring bills as possible to that card. We put our cell phone, cable bill, utility bills, and memberships on one card. That way we never forget to pay those little bills and pay them all with one payment. This is also a great money saver if your bank charges a fee per check or have a monthly check-writing limit on your account.

Online Bill Pay
My bank permits free online bill pay. I probably wouldn’t use a bank that charged me to make its processes easier, but some banks do still charge for the service. If you get bill pay free, then use it. It takes five minutes to log in, enter all the bills you want to pay, set up the payment dates, and then let your bills pay themselves. If your bank doesn’t offer free bill pay, compare the cost of their bill pay with other online bill pay services and sign up for the one with the features you need at the best price. Many credit card and utility companies let you pay for free through their websites, but it does require extra steps to go to those individual websites.

Calendar
If you have bills you need to mail, mark their due dates on a calendar every month. I used to mark the payment date (seven days before the due date) on the stamp spot on the envelopes and file them by payment date. Then once a week I went through my bills and wrote the checks for the bills that were due to be paid that week. If I was going on vacation, I paid the next week’s bills, too. That ensured that I always paid my bills on time.

Filing System
We receive most of our bills online and download them into Quicken, but we maintain a filing system for the bills we do receive. We keep them in the files for a year, and then transfer any we need to keep to our tax folders at the end of the year. We also keep our receipts in folders for sorting at year end.

Your system can be as simple or as complicated as you like, but I found that my really complicated system was overwhelming and this more streamlined method works well for us now.

Shipping holiday gifts successfully requires advance planning, unless you’re willing to spend a fortune on it. If you are, then by all means, ship your gifts December 21st by two-day air. If you’re like me and don’t want spend more on the shipping than the gift, use these seven tips to save money. You might even save time.

Plan to ship everything by Monday, December 17. That way you can use Priority Mail. (If you’re shipping jewelry or other expensive items, use UPS or FedEx ground delivery. It will cost more, but it’s more secure.)

If you haven’t already purchased the gifts you need to ship, order them online and have them shipped directly. If you’re buying from an online store that offers free shipping, see if the total cost of the gifts for each destination is more than the minimum purchase for free shipping. If so, place separate orders so you get free shipping to each destination. If you’d have to pay for shipping to each destination, compare the cost having them all shipped to you free and then shipping them to the recipients yourself.

Next year, use the online USPS, UPS, and FedEx rate calculators and online product information to determine the shipping costs for gifts you’re ordering. One year I discovered my cousin’s gift was very heavy. The post office would have charged $12 to ship it. Rather than include it in the order being shipped to me, I had it shipped directly to her. I had to pay $4.95 for wrapping, but it was still cheaper than shipping it myself. You can also compare the cost of buying the gift online and having it shipped direct vs. buying it at a local store and shipping it yourself. Another year I could buy my cousin’s gift cheaper at a local store. Once wrapping was factored in, the cost of ordering it was more than the cost for me to mail it.

Consolidate your gifts. Rather than buy individual gifts for each family member, choose something the parents and children or both members of the couple will enjoy together. That way you only have to ship one gift instead of three or four and it’s a chance for the family to spend time together.

If shipping holiday gifts by USPS, print your postage online. Simply create an account at their website, enter the address and weight info, then select your preferred method, and pay. You can print a label on plain paper and tape it to the box with clear packing tape. Not only will you save time waiting in line, but you get free delivery confirmation on Priority and Express mail packages. You can either drop the package off without waiting in line or arrange a free pick-up by your regular carrier. If you’re not home during the day, I recommend having it picked up from your office.

Use free packaging. Save some of the shipping boxes you receive during the year and reuse them to ship gifts. Save some of the packing material to avoid buying it yourself. If the gift will fit, you can also use the post office’s free Priority or Express Mail boxes for your gifts. UPS and FedEx also offer free packaging supplies.

Set aside a Saturday to wrap and package gifts. Rather than ship gifts a few times during the holidays, spend a few hours one weekend wrapping all your gifts, then putting them in shipping boxes, printing postage, and dropping them off at the post office. By doing everything at once, you’ll save a lot of time and hassle.

Don’t ship food gifts. If you’ve baked something, give it to local people. Homemade baked goods often arrive broken or spoiled. If you must ship baked goods, mail them on a Monday or Tuesday by two-day delivery so they arrive quickly and don’t have to spend a weekend in a warehouse.

I hate shopping. I hate it any time of year, but I especially hate it at Christmas. The stores are crowded, everyone’s in a frenzy, parking’s a hassle, and it’s hard to find anything. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to shop.

To save time and my sanity, I came up with a few Christmas shopping strategies. I started with the Christmas shopping list I posted the other day. Then I branched out to deadlines and strategic shopping. I now have 12 Christmas shopping tips

Strategy 1: Finish shopping by mid-December. Each year, I set a hard deadline when all my shopping must be done. I try to make it the second Sunday of the month. Unfortunately, December 1st fell on a Saturday this year, and December 9 is a little too early. I’ll be mostly done, but I’ll probably have a couple gift cards left to pick up. My deadline for this year is December 16. Next year it will be December 14.

Strategy 2: Shop on weekdays. When you’re shopping early in the season, the stores are relatively uncrowded after work on a weekday or during lunch. You can hit a few stores in the mall without spending hours and hours.

Strategy 3: Shop with a list. Always rely on your Christmas shopping list to stay on track. Don’t be tempted to add little things or veer from your pre-determined gift decisions by all the pretty, sparkly things you’ll see.

Strategy 4: Shop online. There are a couple online stores where I regularly Christmas shop. If I can order three to four gifts from them in one shot, it seriously cuts down on my shopping time. The gifts are delivered to my office. All I have to do is take them home to wrap them. As an added bonus, I can reuse the shipping boxes to mail gifts to relatives.

Strategy 5: Use PriceProtectr.com: I just learned about this fantastic site, and already it’s saved me a dollar. Here’s what you do: shop at one of the 70 stores covered by site. Make your purchases as usual. Copy and paste the URL into the PriceProtectr.com box along with your email address. They email you if the price falls within the stated price protection period and tell you how to request your refund.

Strategy 6: Shop the online stores first. Before you head to the store, make the sure the store carries the item you want. With some stores, you can actually check their stock on the website. If you’re feeling brave, you can call ahead and ask to have it held, but I usually get aggravated by this because they either don’t answer the phone or leave me on hold forever.

Strategy 7: Choose one shopping center to visit. Once I’ve decided what to get people, I look for as many gifts as possible online. I then figure out which stores carry the remaining items. Finally I figure out which local shopping center has most of those stores and go there to get the rest of the gifts.

Strategy 8: Order gift cards online. Most sites will ship gift cards for free or for $1. If they charge more than that, I won’t buy the card from them or I make sure that store is at the shopping center I plan to visit. I much prefer to buy the gift cards online though. I hate waiting in a long line to get a gift card.

Strategy 9: Have gifts shipped directly to relatives. Although you have to pay for wrapping, free shipping will often make up for that. Gift baskets are great for clients and distant family members. Amazon often has free shipping on toys, so you can have those shipped directly, too.

Strategy 10: Ask kids what they want. If you have to buy gifts for nieces, nephews, or cousins, email their parents in mid-November to ask what the kids want. This way you know exactly what to get and can start planning where to buy it sooner.

Strategy 11: Shop during off-hours. If you have to go to a store like Home Depot or Toys R Us, go late in the evening, around 9 or 10 PM. The place will be deserted. Many malls are open late during this time a year, so that’s another great time to go.

Strategy 12: Make shopping a date. My husband hates to shop as much as I do, but he also wants to pick out some gifts himself, so we make a date out of it. We pick one Saturday to go to a nearby shopping center. We try to get there by six to get his shopping done. Then we put our names in at a restaurant (sometimes we do this first if the restaurant is really popular and we know there will be a long wait) and look at the lights or just meander while we wait. Finally, we cap it off with a movie. Even though it’s shopping, the evening is less stressful because we made a whole night of it.

All these strategies combined make for very merry Christmas shopping. You won’t be babbling incoherently come Christmas morning, and you can impress everyone with how early you finished.

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