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Ease holiday stress: Shop around the calendar

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Early morning Dec. 26, I will stumble into the cold, hair tangled, bathrobe askew and eyes half shut. I will drag in the heavy newspaper, and over a steaming cup of coffee, begin to attack the pages with scissors.

Out comes the “extra savings” coupon for the department store.

Snip goes that clearance notice for wool scarves and leather gloves.

And then I will merrily, merrily shop till I can barely walk.

For me, the day after Christmas marks the beginning of the next holiday shopping season. And that is why I am two-thirds finished with this year’s gift buying (and probably three-quarters finished by the time you read this).

Throughout the year, I find opportunities to purchase and make gifts for family members, friends, party hosts, daycare providers and more. It’s partly about economics, avoiding last-minute spending frenzies and a painful post-holiday credit-card bill that could otherwise be spread over many months. It’s also to preserve sanity: Why drag a 5-year-old around a mobbed mall in December? Why worry about what to get people when you’re busy baking cookies, visiting and entertaining family members, and hitting the holiday parties?

About 13 percent of adults begin their holiday buying before September, according to BIGresearch, a firm that tracks consumer behavior. Those early shoppers are more likely to be married women who have children or grandchildren, said Phil Rist, the company’s executive vice president. “The procrastinators who wait until December to begin are more likely to be single men — no surprise,” he said.

So let’s talk about shopping around the calendar.

Dec. 26 through February: I sniff out serious seasonal discounting, strolling by the sales racks at Nordstrom, Talbots and other retailers. A few notable steals from past runs: a black cashmere scarf under $40 and the softest of leather gloves, under 20 bucks.

February: Cruise by my favorite, tucked-away consignment shops in the Washington area. By now, the well-heeled ladies have acted on New Year’s resolutions to clean out their closets. I’ve scored three new Dooney & Bourke leather purses, tags and all, for about a quarter of the retail price — and a St. John knit blazer for less than $50.

March: Find treasure at an annual powwow in Denver. I trick my sister into picking out a turquoise earrings-and-necklace set for “me.” Pick up a load of Native American pottery, perhaps enough to last till Christmas 2010.

April: While others shop for swimwear, I am looking for slashed prices on wool, flannel and fleece. I surf over to the sales sections of LLBean.com and toss in my online shopping cart a pink coat for my daughter, mittens and snow boots.

August: While cleaning out the guestroom closet, I find … leftover gifts intended for Christmas 2008! Extra bonus!

September: A colleague presents a catalog of unique holiday presents; I snag relatively inexpensive gift bags, an artsy-craftsy snowman kit, and stocking stuffers like an emergency whistle/flashlight and a pair of rubber balls with bumps on them that make your laundry dry faster.

Early October: Time to get serious. I make a holiday gift list and call my sister to compare notes. We plan to cook a delicious Tuscan bean soup for some family members. We’ll split other gift responsibilities. I’ll handle the main gift for Mom this year, and she’ll take Dad. I know Mom has wanted some help figuring out how to use her unused iPod. I plan to create a special “iPod Help” coupon, offering to download a bunch of albums and teach her how to use the music player.

At Starbucks, I grab a $20 gift certificate for my sister. Then I order a case of red wine to prepare for unexpected invites around holiday time.

Oct. 17: My daughter and I meet my best friend and her two sons at The Pottery Stop in Ellicott City, where the kids busily paint bowls, tree ornaments and other items for their gifts. The store does the firing, and we pick up the pieces later.

Oct. 18: Time to empty my shopping cart at Amazon.com. For weeks, I’ve been dropping things in as I remember them. A High School Musical II Rockin’ Sing Along microphone and Plush Fluffy Thumpy bunny pillow for the girl. A Fred Astaire DVD for my sister. Grandmom’s favorite scent. One of my dad’s hard-to-find gifts, a sturdy eyeglasses case that attaches to a belt. And a sweet pair of leather boots for me.

By pre-filling your online cart, you can shop at your leisure and buy it in one bunch, which sometimes saves on shipping costs. The disadvantages are that prices can change and products can go out of stock.

OK, a few confessions.

I’m opposed to obvious recycling of gifts, especially after I saw a holiday present I had given to a girlfriend on one of her pals. But I have been known to take certain ill-fitting gifts, such as a super-small stretch sweater showing every bulge, and exchange them for, say, a holiday gift for the following year. And I don’t have issues with “sharing” a gift certificate meant for me. A $50 bookstore certificate, for example, can buy two books for me and two for you!

Occasionally — or not so occasionally — I also buy things for myself during these sprees. That St. John jacket stayed with me, and so did two of those Dooney purses. I had estimated my 2009 holiday shopping would run about $700 — spread over the entire year. But then I look at my credit card bills and try to add up those little things for me. It is not a pretty sight. Before I make my purchases at Amazon.com, I look at those perfect Ecco boots and sigh. No boots for me.

Then I brighten up. Maybe I’ll get a pair for Christmas.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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