Running with the wolves (or at least the power shoppers) on Black Friday

Itís 3 a.m. and a wild mob is gathered downtown, surging toward a tall building. Is it the Occupy movement? Some sort of riot? No, itís shoppers converging on the store on Black Friday, and if you play your cards right, you can score a bagful of bargains and not get trampled.

As most people already know, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving. Traditionally, itís the day of the year when retailers finally land in the black thanks to the frenzied shoppers looking for bargains as the holiday shopping season begins. In recent years, stores have been opening earlier and earlier and offering deals to nab as many customers as possible.

Planning is key
You may be less than entranced with the idea of getting up at 0-dark-thirty to drive 17 miles to the mall Friday morning and fight to the death for a Hannspree 24-inch Class 1080p LED Edge Lit HDVT. If you plan carefully, however, you can avoid most of the misery, find what you want and even stay within your budget.

Hereís some good news: With the economy in rough shape, retailers are getting more and more desperate and promoting the holiday selling season harder and harder. Even before Black Friday, discounts are flying. You may be able to completely avoid the crazed early-morning scene Nov. 25.

Determine your spending limit
But before you buy, get organized. The very first thing to do: Determine your spending limit. First, subtract the total of your expenses from your income for the next month. Add the leftover sum to any cash you have saved for the holidays. If you expect a holiday bonus at work, add that in too. Now consider how much cash you have on hand. How much do you want to spend? The answer is your spending limit.

Make a list
The next step is to break everything down according to what you want to buy, who youíre buying it for, where you want to buy it, and the top price you are willing to pay. The list should include gifts, decorations and cards, special food and drink, and travel expenses. If the total exceeds your spending limit, trim down the costs until you break even.

Do your research
Now that you know your limits, itís time to do the research. Start checking the ads online, in the stores and the catalogs. Check to see how many bargains you might be able to score before Nov. 25. For your Black Friday shopping, find out which stores carry the items you want, when they open and how much they are charging.

Plot your itinerary
Based on what time which stores open and which ones have the things you want, decide where youíre going to go first, second and third. If a store has an item, for example a GPS system, for far below the usual price, there will be long lines of people waiting to buy it. Decide if you are willing to get to the store an hour before it opens. Donít forget, you still might not be able to get the item.

Compare the prices at multiple places before making a major purchase and avoid impulse buying. And as you take off for the mall, donít forget your shopping list -- and your brass knuckles.
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