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Before holiday shopping, arm yourself with the right tools

Whether you like to shop online or line-up at your favorite store to score those early-bird or Black Friday deals, you could save a lot of money – and time – by reading the fine print first.

Understanding exclusions, coupon and return policies can help you make the most of your shopping experience and bypass the headache and hassles.

1. Special Buys. Items may be advertised in specific ways such as “Special Buys” or “Liquidation Sale” or “Manager’s Special” to separate them from the rest of the products. Typically, those special items are final buys, which means they cannot be returned if you don’t like them or they don’t fit. A good example of these is holiday products. Make sure you read the exclusion clause in the ad or online before you buy the item.

2. Returns. A lot of stores pride themselves in offering “hassle-free returns.” What you may not know is these stores may track your purchasing behavior, including how often you buy and return items. Also keep in mind that if you use a coupon or discount code when you purchase something, that discount may be subtracted from how much you get back if you return it. Online retailers may accept returns, but you may have to pay return shipping. Don’t forget to stay on top of return deadlines. Some stores only give you two weeks to take an item back if you don’t want it anymore.

3. Limited Quantities. During hot shopping days, such as Black Friday, retailers will only stock a limited amount of items to make sure they don’t have any left over. Also, if the product runs out, there is a chance customers will buy something else instead, and maybe at a higher price, just so they don’t walk away from the store empty-handed. Use sites like CamelCamelCamel to track price changes at some online retailers to judge if it’s worth waiting until “after” hot shopping days to get the item at a similar price.

4. Policies Galore. Just like return policies vary with store and season, there are many varying policies to be aware of. For example: When you buy an item, there may be a deadline for buying product insurance. If you buy a laptop and forget to purchase a warranty and the laptop breaks, you may be out of luck, if the insurance deadline passes. Rebates are another thing not to forget. We may see a great final price after a rebate. Retailers and manufacturers know a large portion of us will forget to submit the rebate, so don’t be remiss in doing so.

5. Privacy Policy. If you are providing personal information to create an account or to provide payment, understand that each company should request your permission to use that information as it is listed in their privacy policy, often included in their “terms and conditions.” Your email and home address may be shared to third party agents. If a store or online retailer does not provide a privacy policy directly from their homepage, you may want to think twice before letting them have your important personal information.

Being prepared really helps. Know exactly what you want to buy, how many the store will carry, how you can pay, and what happens if you have to return it. It may seem unimportant or inconvenient, but every little detail is key. Whether it’s bringing the ad with you to the store or knowing the price-matching policy like the back of your hand, if you know what you’re talking about, chances are you can end your shopping days with little to no damage to your wallet and personal information.