my two cents

How Do I Shop for the Holidays Without Wasting Money?

Photo: D. Corson/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The supply chain is a mess — perhaps you’ve heard? I’ve started using it as a blanket excuse for everything: “Sorry I’m late. The supply chain! Have you bought paper towels lately?” Try it sometime; people tend to be understanding.

Regardless of where this ranks on your list of life concerns, we can all agree that the kinks in global commerce will make holiday shopping extra annoying and expensive this year. I just tried to buy a festive new pie tin and was told it wouldn’t arrive until 2022, which is … bad news for my pies of 2021. As holiday orders pile up and people freak out about getting their gifts and other supplies on time, weird delays and pricing will get even worse. Is there anything we can do to avoid this vortex of extra stress and cost? I talked to several business owners and retail experts to find out. Here’s what they told me.

Shop locally and in person when you can.

This might seem obvious, but if you buy something from a local store, you can sidestep one of the biggest time and money quagmires of the holiday season: the mail. “We ship stuff as quickly as possible, but it’s still a crapshoot half the time — delays are just out of our control,” says Shannon Maldonado, the founder and creative director of Yowie, a store and design studio based in Philadelphia. “Shipping is also more expensive than it’s ever been, across the board.” That includes stuff like packing tape and boxes, too, she adds.

Another upside to shopping in person means you aren’t directly contributing to bottlenecks in fulfillment centers. “During the holidays, especially around heavy shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, worker injury rates tend to spike,” says Tanja Hester, the author of Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save as a Force for Change. Plus, going to a physical store is so novel these days! And they’ve got inventory, unlike some e-commerce sites that are suffering from shipping snafus on the manufacturing end as well.

If you must order stuff online (which, let’s face it, you will), shop early. 

And while you’re at it, select the slowest shipping option. “Last-minute shopping is always going to cost more and have the biggest negative impact,” says Hester. “It’s going to force the warehouse workers to hurry, which leads to things like shorter bathroom breaks, which no one wants. It also has a higher climate impact, because rushed shipments are put on a plane instead of a truck or a train.”

If you’re looking for a deal or nervous about your stuff arriving on time, ask!

Customer service is there for a reason. “Don’t be shy about reaching out to a company and saying, ‘Hey, I love your products and I’m trying to navigate the holiday season this year. Could you let me know if you’re planning any promotions in the next month that I should look out for?’” says Jessica Morelli, the founder and CEO of the skin-care brand Palermo Body. “I would never not tell a customer if we have a sale coming up.”

The same goes for shipping timelines. “If you are concerned that you’re not going to get something by the time you want it, reach out and say, ‘I’d like to purchase this, but I need it by this date. Does that seem feasible?’” says Morelli. “If you don’t hear back within 24 hours on a business day, that could be an indication that you won’t be getting that item on time.”

Check where stuff is made.

Domestically manufactured items are less likely to be impacted by rising costs of snarled international supply chains, says Michele Romanow, the co-founder and president of Clearco, a company that helps small-business owners expand online. “There are still issues with supply chains inside the country, but at least you won’t be paying for all the extra problems with container ships and ports and shipping from China,” she explains. So you might not be getting a deal, exactly, but at least you won’t be paying for a bunch of disorganized middlemen.

Cut back gifting in general.

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to scale back on gifting this year, here it is! “I know a lot of families or groups who normally exchange gifts would actually like to deescalate the holiday-giving arms race,” says Hester. “I feel like there’s never been a better moment to suggest an alternative, especially since being able to see loved ones is a gift in itself this year.” You could propose limiting gifts to one thing each, or add parameters like only giving each other secondhand or digital items. (If this seems awkward, you could start with asking for such types of gifts yourself.)

Be careful when you type in your shipping information.

A significant number of shipping delays are caused every year simply because people mis-enter their addresses, says Romanow. And while this might seem like something that only your mom would do, know that it’s shockingly common. “You’d be amazed at how often it happens — sometimes between 5 and 10 percent of orders — and it’s a nightmare for e-commerce businesses who are then asked to track down mislabeled items,” she adds. It’s also tough on delivery people, who are already working their butts off this time of year.

Ask people what they really want — or buy gift certificates.

“Gift cards are always easy, and really helpful for businesses in the long term because they help retain customers or bring in new ones,” says Maldonado. Plus, that’s usually what people want anyway! And they help cut back on waste at every level, because no one gets stuck with crap they don’t like and have to get rid of. Win-win.

How Do I Shop for the Holidays Without Wasting Money?