The holiday season can be full of surprises: unexpected gifts and guests, chance encounters with old friends, and maybe even an important question with a sparkling ring attached. Not every holiday surprise is a good one and when it comes to spending, unanticipated fees and charges are especially unwelcome.
The chaos of the holiday season can leave anyone feeling unorganized and vulnerable to the unexpected. To avoid being unpleasantly surprised by your credit card bill come January, take heed of these 10 holiday shopping gotchas.
1. Store card discounts.
You may be tempted to take advantage of an extra 10-15% discount by opening a new store card. However, these cards have low credit limits and high interest rates, a combination that can prove dangerous to your credit score if not carefully managed. Ultimately, it’s best to avoid these cards unless you shop with the store frequently and can commit to paying off balances in full each month. Instead, stick to one credit card that provides cash back or miles and earn rewards faster.
2. Gift card restrictions.
Several doorbusters and Black Friday deals were accompanied by store gift cards, but these gift cards aren’t what they seem. They’re more like coupons, which means they can skirt the Card Act’s rules about certain restrictions and expiration dates. Instead of tucking these away for a rainy day, use them to offset the cost of gifts remaining on your holiday shopping list.
3. Refund limitations.
Getting a refund for an item you no longer want can get painful fast if you don’t know the store’s return policy. You may miss the return window since some stores have different return timeframes for specific products, namely electronics and contract cell phones. You may also get saddled with a merchandise credit instead of a refund, which will be a big disappointment if you don’t shop at the store often. In this case, you have the option of exchanging your gift card for cash using GiftCardGranny.com, or re-gifting it if youâre feeling especially generous!
4. Extended warranties.
Extended warranties are typically offered for electronics and appliance purchases and are often considered by cautious consumers who want to protect their investment. These warranties are also money makers for retailers who keep 50 percent or more of the cost for themselves. The manufacturer’s warranty is typically sufficient, plus most major credit cards offer extended coverage when you make the entire purchase on the card. For more information on these policies, consult Consumer Reports’ detailed guide.
5. Restocking fees.
Sure, you were thrilled about your new laptop purchase a couple weeks ago, but now you’re feeling buyer’s remorse or perhaps finding it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles you expected. Returning it may mean you receive less back than what you paid because of restocking fees, which are typically around 15 percent of the purchase price when it comes to electronics. To avoid restocking fees, read the fine print before you make your purchase. Otherwise, read the return policy and keep gadgets in their original packaging. Stores like Sears will waive restocking fees on unused consumer electronics if they’re returned in the original box and contain all the accessories and instructions.
6. Free shipping minimums.
Free shipping offers are everywhere this holiday season, but increasingly merchants are requiring minimum order thresholds of $50, $75 and even over $100 before you get free delivery. If you have to spend more to qualify for free shipping then it’s not free. Avoid adding more items to your online cart by holding off until the retailer promises free shipping on all orders. You can take advantage of such promotions on December 18th, this year’s Free Shipping Day, when hundreds of retailers waive minimum order requirements, offer extra discounts and guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.
7. Return shipping charges.
Ordering online is quick and simple, but it could become costly if you don’t read return policies. Especially if you need to send something back, you may be facing a return shipping fee. Always review the company’s website for return policies and inquire if online order can be returned to a local brick and mortar store at no charge. You can also open a live chat with customer service to learn what your other options may be, or to request return shipping fees be waived. You’ll never know ’til you try!
8. “Buy more, save more” promotions.
The phrase “buy more, save more!” has likely flashed across your computer screen or greeted you at store entrances more than once this holiday season. Instead of offering 20-percent off your purchase, retailers have increasingly promoted tiered savings, like $10 off $50, $20 off $100 or $30 off $150 in an effort to boost purchase orders. Though $30 in savings seems like a better value than just $10, often the discount in each deal is the same. Don’t be tricked by this clever marketing strategy and enjoy whatever savings your budgeted spending gets you!
9. Surprise gifts.
After carefully planning your gift budget, nothing throws off your spending like an unexpected gift that you need to reciprocate. Factor this possibility into your budget now and have some inexpensive, ready-made gifts available for that moment. Holiday beverage or treat mixes, ceramic travel mugs or even an old fashioned plate of homemade cookies should do the trick.
10. Layaway cancellation.
Stores like Walmart and Toys ‘R Us had advertised free layaway programs this year by waiving start up fees. However, most stores still carry a $10 or $15 cancellation penalty, a detail often overlooked by shoppers mesmerized by program headlines. Before you open a layaway account, read the fine print and make sure you can make necessary payments in full before the end date to dodge the cancellation fine.
Andrea Woroch is a nationally-recognized consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc., who helps consumers live on less without radically changing their lifestyles. From smart spending tips to personal finance advice, Andrea transforms everyday consumers into savvy shoppers. She has been featured among top news outlets such as Good Morning America, NBC’s Today, MSNBC, New York Times, Kiplinger Personal Finance, CNNMoney and many more. For more information, visit AndreaWoroch.com or follow her on Twitter for daily savings advice and tips.