November 2005:
The Season's Guide
to Internet Shopping

Online shopping can save you precious time and money during the holidays – but only if you do it right. Make the season merry by using the virtual marketplace safely and effectively.

Make a gift list
You can avoid wasteful impulse purchases by knowing what you want to buy for each of your loved ones long before you log in. Take a tip from Santa – make a list and check it twice. With it, you decide in advance who gets what and how much you intend to spend. Post it next to your computer screen and try not to veer from it.

Limit unlimited access
24-hour access to virtually every major (and minor) retailer on the planet can be overly tempting if you have trouble knowing when to say when. Limit time spent online by setting a shopping schedule. If you want to be off by 9:00, prepare to shut down by 8:59.

Know when to walk away
While some of the best deals can be had from online auction sites, they can be a touch too exciting for shoppers caught up in the “game” of outbidding someone else. Sometimes winning means losing. Set your top price and log out if it goes over your maximum.

Save on shipping
Standing in post office lines can damper anyone’s holiday cheer. Instead, send purchases directly to the recipient. Many online retailers offer free shipping if you order over a certain amount, and some sites provide a gift-wrapping service (for a small fee) too.

Don’t delay
This time of year plan for no less than a six-week preorder time before you want the gift to arrive. If you wait too long your purchases will have to be specially (and expensively) shipped. Also, if you’re counting on a specific item for the holidays, it could very well be out of stock by the time you order.

Shop safe sites
Avoid scams by actively typing the web address of the business you want to shop from into the address bar, rather than responding to an email or pop-up ad. Make sure the company’s website is secure – look for a lock icon on the browser’s status bar, or for the URL to begin with “https:”

Use plastic
Credit cards offer consumer protection: if the product doesn’t arrive or isn’t what you ordered, you can dispute the charge. Only enter account information via the website’s secure online system. Never email any personal or financial data, as it’s not a secure way to transmit information.

Avoid overspending
Online shopping can feel like your not spending “real” money. To stay within your limit, keep a running total of each purchase (include tax and shipping costs) on a sheet of paper, and constantly compare it to your budget. To avoid debt, use a debit card. Spending is limited to the amount in your account, and those sporting the Visa or MasterCard logo are not only as convenient as credit cards, but offer many of the same protections.

Know policies
Make sure you know the refund policy, including the reimbursement timeframe, shipping costs, and if there are any restocking fees. Confirm the online seller’s physical address and phone number in case you have future questions or problems.

Finally, it’s easy to get carried away by the generous spirit of the season. Stay true to your personal budget and give within your means. It’s the joyful way to start the New Year.