5 tips for navigating holiday hurdles

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

Now that most of the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, it’s time for many of us to get really serious about shopping. And not just about the best TV or smart phone. Other considerations included broader issues such as whether it makes sense to buy a gift card or extended warranty, or open a store charge account. Perhaps you'd be better off heading to the outlets (see video). It’s also important to keep an eye on critical shipping deadlines. Check out these tips to avoid disappointment, debt, and wasting money.

Extended warranties Don’t take the bait. It’s usually pouring money down the drain. Retailers can make more money selling extended warranties, or protection plans, than products. These plans amount to very expensive insurance against the long-shot chance that a product will break within a relatively narrow window: after the manufacturer’s warranty expires and precisely during the two- or three-year period when the extended warranty is in place.

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You're also betting that the cost of the repair will exceed the cost of the warranty, which our research shows is unlikely most of the time. When electronics and appliances do break, for instance, the repairs, on average, cost not much more than the extended warranty. And you may already be covered free. Many credit cards automatically extend the manufacturer's warranty up to a year or so on products purchased with the card. Check to see if your card comes with this perk.

Gift cards They’re among the most desirable gifts to give and get, and the National Retail Federation says shoppers will purchase $31.7 billion worth of them this holiday season. New regulations have made gift cards safer than ever. But still there are drawbacks. Bank cards (from Visa, Amex, etc.) that can be used at most stores, have purchase fees of as much as $5 or so. Issuers are also allowed to charge inactivity fees if they go unused for a period of time that can decrease the value month after month—a consideration in light of the revelation that 15 percent of respondents to a Consumer Reports survey had at least one unused card from the previous holiday season a year later. In addition, issuers are not required to replace lost of stolen cards, something that's common with retailer- or company-specific cards. Some issuers charge a replacement fee.

Still looking for the perfect holiday presents? Check out our Ultimate Gift Guide.

Gift receipts Despite longer grace periods, items bought between November and the end of December are typically eligible for an extended return period through mid-February—many retailers are tightening return policies. Merchants have in the past been fairly generous in taking back goods without a receipt, at least offering store credit, but now we're seeing some chains take a harder line. But remember, even if a merchant is willing to accept a return without a gift receipt, you'll receive the lowest price the items sold for, not necessarily what the giver paid for it.

Store credit cards When you're at the register and the clerk says you can take another 10 percent to 20 percent off your immediate purchase by opening a charge account, the store credit card sure looks tempting. But if the card entices you to spend more than you planned just to get the discount, it's no bargain, and could lead to unnecessary credit-card debt. Seven percent of shoppers are still carrying credit-card debt incurred during last holiday season. Another thing to remember is that the cost of borrowing from your favorite retailers is on the rise. The average APR is now 23.23 percent, according to tracker CreditCards.com. That's more than 8 points higher than the national average for general-purpose cards.

Holiday Shipping Costs and Deadlines  A recent Consumer Reports study showed that the good old U.S. Postal Service offers much cheaper prices than either FedEx or UPS on ground, second day, and next-day delivery. As for key shipping dates within the U.S. this season, here's what you need to know.

For the Post Office: Dec. 15, Standard Post; Dec. 2, First Class Mail; Dec. 20, Priority Mail; Dec. 23, Priority Mail Express.

FedEx: Dec. 12, SmartPost; Dec. 17, Ground and Home Delivery; Dec. 20, Express Saver; Dec. 22,  2 Day; Dec. 23, Overnight.

UPS: Dec. 18, Ground; Dec. 19, 3 Day Select; Dec. 22, 2nd Day Air; Dec. 23, Next Day.

—Tod Marks

Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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