By Monica K. Guthrie 

 Christmas, to me, is not about the gifts I get. It’s about the gifts I get to give. I absolutely love to take Thanksgiving and turning it into “thanks” and “giving” using the holidays as a time to show those in my life that I love and appreciate them. Even in my most money-tight ramen-eating days, I never worried about what I would give. How is that? I took advantage of Black Friday!

Let me say before we get started, Black Friday shopping is not for everyone. Many people prefer to stay home, shop online or not shop at all. This article is for those few, those crazy few, who actually enjoy going out into the fray. Here are ways to suit up and get the most from the day.

Who to shop for?

To really save, you have to do some pregaming – and that starts with knowing who you’re going to shop for. Is it going to be everyone in your life? Just your immediate family? Your coworkers? The mailman? Once you know who you’re shopping for you can move forward. In my family all the adults draw names and we get gifts for the one person plus the children in the family. It helps save money and time.

*Note, I always give something to the mail man, and recently after seeing a fabulous Kate Spade commercial, I just might include the meter maid as well.

Budget

Now you’ll need to work on a budget. You cannot (or should not) go into a holiday-shopping frenzy without an idea of how much you want to spend and if you can, how much that equates to per person. You can always be flexible with budget once you set one – for example, if I say I’m going to spend $20 on my child and $20 on my mom, but then I find a great deal on a gift for my son, I can use what I saved and add it to the amount I was going to spend on my mom. You may also decide to set price limits for family or suggest gifts be homemade. It might be uncomfortable to say, but you just might be saying what everyone else is already thinking: the holidays are expensive.

Plan of attack

Next, you can’t just go at it without a plan. You need to look at the advertisements which are already starting to come out. Target already has their Black Friday ad online, Best Buy has their prices posted along with Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, J.C. Penny Co., Lowe’s, Sam’s Club and more. Not only do they post what the deals will be, they also tell you what time they open and if there are special deals.

The time is important for multiple reasons. First it lets you know what time the store will open so you know how early you can arrive. Additionally, some stores will offer extra incentives, doorbusters, giveaways, and discounts at certain times of the day. It’s important to time out what time you’d like to arrive at the store. Those giveaways and doorbusters can make great stocking stuffers if you’re trying to save additional cash.

Extra tips

For larger, more popular stores (Wal-Mart and Target for example) I recommend choosing a handful of items you really want and just get those items – don’t be lured by the deal you see on the next aisle. It’s a trap! Don’t get a cart. Just go in, get the items you want and leave. There will be a mad rush of people there and that’s when frustrations rise. To be completely honest, I avoid the larger stores because of the chaos (and sometimes because people get seriously crazy – you know what I’m talking about). I can generally get a comparable item/price somewhere else.

I’ve only shopped with a child once and while it wasn’t the worst experience ever, it did make the shopping experience more difficult. I recommend leaving the kids at home and shopping with a friend. Oh! Always shop with a friend, there’s safety in numbers plus they can help you out when you need someone to hold your place in line while you take your son (that you didn’t get to leave at home) to the bathroom at the last minute. Also, if you have to bring the kiddos, make sure you have a fully charged phone/iPad/Kindle, some snacks and maybe an extra power source.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that it’s not going to be a smooth process. I find if I go into it knowing that there will be lots of people, that I may not get what I’m looking for or that there is always the possibility of someone making a scene, I enjoy the process more. That said, I always make plans to get hot tea/hot chocolate/coffee and if I’m lucky, snacks while I’m out. It keeps me warm when I’m out and gives me something to do while waiting in line for the person in front of me to finish arguing with the cashier.

If you live in the middle of nowhere

This Black Friday I’ll be visiting my parents who live in a very small town with only a single Wal-Mart so I’ll probably forego Black Friday shopping, at least in the stores. Instead I’m going to be checking out stores in their town and seeing if they are doing Black Friday deals. I also plan on shopping local on Small Business Saturday or getting other deals on Cyber Monday.

Here lately I’ve become a fan of supporting my friends who have home businesses and I try to purchase a gift from them (my most recent fave is Sweet Healings LLC, an all-natural aromatherapy company a college friend started – check them out!). Many home businesses will be having their own holiday specials – now is the time to be part of their VIP Facebook pages or in their emails. AND! You know who else will be having sweet deals – www.Sleeping Baby.com! Get in on the action and sign up for their newsletter to see how you can save (like how I did that little promo in there? Pretty slick, eeh?).

Trade money for memories

Without good planning you may get some good deals, however you run the risk of getting things you didn’t really need to get or wasting a lot of money. But for me, it’s not really about getting the gifts or saving money. As I’ve gotten older I find myself trading more and more of the money for memories. For my family (particularly my sister and I), Black Friday is a day to wait longingly for Starbucks to open, get frustrated at lines and also to catch up on lives, laugh about our children and remember holidays past. Then we have brunch as the spoils of our work wait in the car. Sometimes our mom joins us, sometimes our spouses, but regardless of who comes, we all have fun because it’s not about shopping, it’s about working toward something that matters: memories.

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Monica K. Guthrie is an Army brat, an Army veteran (Rock of the Marne!) and now an Army spouse with two boys. She is currently the media relations officer for the public affairs office at Fort Sill, Okla., and writes a weekly column called the Okie Bucket List. She also has a photography and graphic design business, Pro Deo Creations, that she maintains between potty training and kissing scraped knees.