For the 2021 holiday shopping season, brace yourself for shortages due to supply-chain bottlenecks, shipping delays, changes to retailers’ traditional discounting practices, and more. Many big box stores have curtailed their Black Friday events, and juggernauts including Best Buy, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart, are closing for Thanksgiving Day.

The many changes have already left many shoppers scrambling for already-out-of-stock popular gifts—and GOOD LUCK to all you perpetual Christmas Eve buyers. But there are still plenty of ways to save money and make sure you cover everyone on your “nice” list. Here are our top tips for holiday shopping.

Don’t Assume a Sale Price Is a Good Price

A big spending mistake many consumers make is assuming ads or prices displaying steep discounts are genuine. Often, they’re just fake sales. Even if a website or store price tag is offering 40 percent off or whatever, it’s probably not a steal—or even the lowest available price. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers find that at many retailers the “sales” never, or almost never, end. In a 10-month-long investigation, we documented that many stores use deceptive selling practices, especially by offering continuous, misleading sales campaigns.

The only way to know whether you're actually being offered a low price is to compare prices at several retailers. We find CamelCamelCamel, which tracks the price history of items sold by Amazon for the past year, is often helpful with identifying good deals.

Use Shopping Bots and Barcode Scanners to Compare Prices

There are dozens of smartphone apps and websites that can help you compare prices, including BuyVia, HoneyPriceGrabber, and ShopSavvy. Amazon’s price-checking tool is integrated into its mobile app. Use one of these apps to search for products you’re considering or to scan the barcode of a product at a local store to get prices offered by other retailers.

Be a Promo Code Pro

When making purchases online, you’ll often see spaces where you can enter a promotional or coupon code. These spaces may as well be labeled “Hey! Here’s free money!” Do an internet search for discount codes for the site (for example, search for “Lands’ End discount code”). Although we sometimes encounter expired or otherwise invalid codes, we still find the reward is often worth a few minutes’ of searching and trial-and-error.

Three of our favorite coupon sites are CouponCabin, RetailMeNot, and SlickDeals, but there are many others worth checking. We recently found discount codes that saved 28 percent off a photo order from; cut $20 off a $100 Foot Locker buy; and provided 35 percent off at Old Navy (matching family Christmas jammies, anyone?). We almost never shell out for shipping because there are so many codes that offer that for free. And many sites will let you stack coupons for even greater savings and/or free shipping.

Get Social

Connect with retailers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and sign up for their promotional emails, which many retailers use to share discount codes and other deals. Many stores offer one-time discounts of 10 to 25 percent when you agree to sign up for their email lists. (I just scored 10 percent off a rarely discounted cashmere sweater from Everlane by doing this.) Have more than one email address? Sign up with another address the next time you’re ready to buy.

If the retailer has a frequent customer program, sign up. You may qualify for special offers, like free shipping and birthday discounts. Following style bloggers and Instagram influencers can also pay off when retailers partner with them to offer special deals to their followers.

Try Cash-Back Shopping Portals

As we discuss in our article on cash-back shopping portals, many online retailers pay referral commissions to businesses that send them customers. Online shopping portals, including BeFrugal, CouponCabin, Rakuten, and MrRebates give their customers a cut of those funds (anywhere from one percent to 40 percent of the shopper’s total purchase amount). Macy’s was recently offering 15 percent cashback via Rakuten. Especially when combined with the store’s coupons, that extra coin can make a significant difference in your total spend.

You must click through to the retailer’s website via the portal’s website (or install the portal’s browser extension, which most of them offer, to connect automatically). Most portals let you simplify things—and remind you of available rebates—with the extensions and mobile apps that tell you when there’s cash back available as you visit websites.

One of our favorite features of the cash-back services we use is that they keep track of stores’ promo and coupon codes and automatically apply those discounts as we add items to our carts. Sometimes one portal will offer a better rebate than others. Before making a big buy, we’ll check CashbackMonitor, which aggregates offers for various rebate sites and reports the best current payouts.

Take Advantage of Special Discounts

Are you a member of the military, a teacher, a student, or first responder? You may qualify for extra savings at stores such as J. Crew, Apple, Bonobos, LOFT, Sunglass Hut, and Staples. Some retailers only allow these discounts for in-store purchases, but others apply the discount to online orders after a verification process. New Balance, for example, offers a 10 percent discount to anyone using a military email address in the checkout process. A quick internet search will quickly yield lists of participating retailers. Older than 55? Check The Senior List for a roundup of discounts available to you.

Consider Gift Cards and Experience Gifts

Most of us have too much stuff. You can avoid gifting potentially unwanted items—and eliminate the pressure of shopping during the bonkers 2021 shopping landscape—by buying gift cards and experience gifts (yoga passes, cooking classes, hotel or airline gift cards, massages, museum memberships). Services you can provide also make wonderful presents (for example, a coupon for babysitting or a homemade meal). Want to make the gift feel extra special, even if it’s a certificate or card? Wrap it beautifully, and possibly include a small, practical item to go with it, such as tennis balls to go with a certificate for lessons.

Go Local

The pandemic has been very tough on small businesses. Supporting local merchants is a win-win; you’ll feel good about keeping your dollars in the community (when you shop locally, about $.67 per dollar stays in the local economy, according to American Express), and you also can be sure that you’ll have what you need in time for gifting—shipping delays won’t slow you down. In addition to brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants, check out craft fairs, holiday bazaars, farmers’ markets, and independently owned salons and spas for gift cards. Small Business Saturday is November 27, and many businesses will offer specials to shoppers.

Think Twice Before Signing Up for Buy Now, Pay Later Offers

Buy now, pay later (BNPL) is relatively new to the retail scene, offered as a convenient way to pay for gift purchases. More than 40,000 U.S. retailers now offer BNPL. The basic model for retail purchases is simple: Buy what you want and pay back the loan in equal installments, often without interest. The typical set-up is four payments over a four-to-six-week period, with the first payment due at the time of purchase.

As we've previously reported, while BNPL is marketed as a smarter, more consumer-friendly way to pay, these point-of-sale loans can lure you into buying things you can’t afford. Sellers offer BNPL because they've found these arrangements help them close deals, but most consumers who sign up for these plans don’t really know how they work.

Not all BNPL offers are the same; check the terms and conditions before using a particular service. Most BNPL loans have late fees, which in some cases, may be reported to the credit bureaus and damage your credit history. It’s important to find out how that company handles late payments before you sign up.

Very important: BNPL loans lack the consumer protections that apply to credit cards. If you buy something worth more than $50 with a credit card, and it does not arrive, or the quality is unsatisfactory—and you’ve tried to resolve the issue with the seller—you can dispute the charge with the credit card company. You don’t get the same protections on BNPL transactions.

More Info from Checkbook:

30 Pricing Tricks Retailers Use to Get You to Pay Up

Get Ready for a Weird Black Friday

Buy Now, Pay Later Spending Traps

Attention Holiday Shoppers: The Pros and Cons of Retail Credit Cards

At Many Stores, the Sale Price Isn't Special