Reuters 12/03/08 Reuters
Find gift bargains via search engine by Linda Stern

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most consumers plan to spend dramatically less this holiday season than they did last year or the year before. Shoppers say they will average $431 for gifts, down from $859 last year, according to the American Research Group. Planned spending is at its lowest level since 1991.

But cutting back is often easier said than done. Gifts cost way more today than they did in 1991, and the kids and their wish lists haven't gotten any smaller.

Some savings tactics are obvious: Families can do the pull-the-name-out-of-a-hat exchange instead of everybody buying for everybody. Homemade food items can suffice for drop-in visits and teacher gifts.

But sometimes, you've just gotta shop. Do it right, especially with the sales and shoppers search engines available now, and you can come in under budget. Here's the best of the crop. Happy Holiday!

-- Compare prices online before you head to a store. Web sites like, and will show you lowest prices for the items you want. Once you're in the mall, you can still comparison shop with your cellphone. Check out, which lets you compare prices by phone. Then bring coupons with you. Find them at sites like and

-- Got a favorite store? Go to its website, too. Many offer coupons, cellphone sales alerts and more. If you aren't sure what your favorite store is, until you see what kinds of deals they are all offering, check out, which lists sales, coupons and promotions by retailer.

-- Shop the discount stores. Retailers like Loehmann's, TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Tuesday Morning are getting more inventory than usual, because the high-end retailers have been trimming their own. You may find better-than-usual deals on high-end items like cashmere sweaters or designer duds.

-- Be shipping savvy. Some 45 percent of online shoppers say they'll never pay for shipping, according to But they may be paying too much for the products they are shipping free. Better to compare post-shipping prices. Start by checking and to find lists of stores that will ship free, but compare those prices to after-shipping sales on the price comparison sites.

-- Save on tickets? If you're giving or attending theater or sporting events during the holiday season, check It collects ticket prices at most of the major ticket-selling sites and finds the best deal.

-- Stocking stuffers should be free. Check out, and Both list all kinds of giveaways. You may have to take surveys to get some of the goodies.

-- Don't pay full price at restaurants. Both and (with and without the s) offer promotions that change frequently but can save big bucks at your local eatery. If you've got a favorite restaurant, go to its website before you make your plans, many offer coupons they don't advertise.

-- Save on wrapping. Newspaper comics, recycled paper bags that your kids draw on, gift tags you make yourself from last year's cards will all really help your bottom line significantly.

-- Be smart about your credit cards. If you are the kind of person who always pays off your balances every month and don't expect to incur any lingering holiday debts, you have some room to maneuver. Apply for the store card that will save you 20 percent on your day's purchases if you're buying a lot, then pay it off on the first bill and tuck it in a drawer. If you already have card balances, apply for no new cards and make sure you don't overload any one of your cards, says Ken Lin, of Credit Karma. That can lower your credit score and that can, in turn, raise interest rates on the cards you already use.