76 Christmas-shopping days left: Are you ready?

Preparing for the best holiday deals
Preparing for the best holiday deals   

Attention, shoppers: You have only 76 more days until Christmas. But who's counting, right?

Earlier this week, the National Retail Federation said it expected holiday sales to increase 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion. There's no need to start shopping now, nor should you, necessarily. But as sales creep earlier into the season, it increasingly pays to have some preparations in place to make sure you're capturing the best deals.

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Chief among them: Plot out purchases. It's not just about making your gift list, but researching big-ticket purchases to make sifting through those fast-moving sales easier. (What's your preferred screen technology for that TV? What features are must-haves?) "Decide whether it's the best time to upgrade," said Brent Shelton, a spokesman for deal site FatWallet.com.

Holiday shopping
Ben Hilder | Getty Images

It's also smart to sort out how you'll pay. Cash is king from a budgetary standpoint, of course, but plunking down a credit card at checkout can offer perks including automatic doubling of manufacturers' warranties, and even price adjustments if you find a better deal. See which of your current cards offers the best benefits.

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While you're at it, sign up for stores' loyalty programs, if you're not a member already, said Shelton. In recent seasons, retailers including Best Buy and Sears have given loyalty club members and store credit card holders early access to Black Friday specials.

To stretch your budget, pick up gift cards on the secondary market, for stores where you plan to do some holiday shopping, said Kendal Perez, a spokeswoman for CouponSherpa.com. Aggregator GiftCardGranny.com shows deals on resale sites; discounts can be as much as 30 percent off the face value of the card. Buy 'em now to have in hand for pairing with holiday sales and coupons. "That can deepen discounts," she said.

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