The Rational Holiday Buyer

Why is a guide like this even needed?


This year’s holiday season is on upon us and there are sales everywhere.


Generally the holiday seasons are a time where there is a lot of impulsive buying and well, you may end up with many items that did not prove to be the great sales that you had hoped they would be.


Your goals should be to:

  1. Buy only what you need at lower prices than usual
  2. Avoid buying what you don’t need or ending up with a lot of buyer’s remorse
  3. Buy only good quality products
  4. Minimize the time you waste (Ex: going to a store only to find that the desired product is not there or not at the advertised price)


This may seem logical, but in practice, this is harder than it looks. Retailers often try to advertise aggressively (so called “door crashers”) and they want to encourage impulsive buying.


Create a list of what you want in advance


Some time in the fall, I create a list of what I want a couple of months in advance.   Keep a Google doc (use a Google doc or Office 365 and not a spreadsheet as you want to be able to see this on your phone – not on your hard drive) to make changes on the fly.  You don’t need to record everything, but the most expensive items are worth it.


The things I record are:

  1. Name of item
  2. Why I wanted it
  3. Best price seen
  4. IF you want to, you can put other notes here too  like substitutes or reviews to remind yourself


The name of the item and why are to prevent impulsive buying. I want to be able to be able to carefully think about why I bought this item. Likewise, if the item is not available or if something else pops up (ex: a better item on sale), I want to be able to substitute it.  This is also the time to think very carefully about what you want to buy that and whether you actually need it or how good the item is.


The price is equally as important because I want to know what is actually a “Great Deal”. These days, items are constantly on sale even outside of the holiday season, so for the most expensive it is definitely worth looking at the prices outside of the holiday when  items are on sale.   All too often there is the illusion during the holiday that you are getting a wonderful deal when in reality, you are getting something mediocre.


Also keep in mind that some things you may want to consider purchasing used. There are deals to be found on sites like Kijiji.


If you are buying other people gifts, ask people what  they need. A gift is far more likely to be used (and the receiver more likely to remember you when they think of an item)  if they use the item that you gave them frequently, rather than collecting dust in a closet.


Check reviews to see what is actually worth buying


A lot of the most marketed items are not not the best. To use an example, Beats and Bose are heavily advertised as “Audiophile”. No self-respecting audiophile would ever be seen with such products (go to Head-fi if you don’t believe me).


Look up what is actually good and what is actually terrible, but over-hyped. For my biggest purchases, I will have considered months in advance what I wanted to buy, the reasons why, and so on. I will have carefully considered whether or not the product in question is worthy of my hard-earned money.  The criteria here is the benefits to cost ratio. A high ratio is what is worth buying or something that is necessary.


The more expensive, the more you should spend time looking.


Use online shopping price comparisons for comparison


Here in Canada, I use to compare prices. There are price comparison tools for your nation, but this one has been the best for me in Canada.  It doesn’t always pull the latest deals, but I always look at the least expensive 3-4 sites to check. Sometimes the price is lower than expected!


The point of a price comparison tool is to have something fast and easy, so that you can have a quick update on prices. Update your spreadsheet on best price seen where appropriate.


There are shopping and deal sites everywhere. The important thing is that for a relatively small time investment, you can find the best prices very quickly.


Forums can be useful for major deals … but be careful


There are various saver sites, and computer geek sites that I consult. is the site that I personally use the most for my computing needs. There are dedicated deal sites as well. Red Flag Deals is a Canadian example. They can be useful because they have aggregate deal threads. The members there are generally experts there who recognize what is actually a deal and what is just “warm” (a so-so deal) or what is not really a deal at all. They also can give advice on what items are actually good. I would recommend that you become an active member of sites in areas that you are passionate about and to participate in deal sites.


Be careful though about such websites as they may encourage you to buy the good deals.  Be mindful of what you need.


Avoid other impulsive purchases too


However, its not just websites, it is stores that can make you feel inadequate.


I discourage people from coming into a store to “just look”. You are far more likely to make an impulsive purchase then. Remember to use your list. For major electronics and other big ticket goods, the actual prices are on the store website. Often you will get real-time stock as well. The most advertised items are often the ones that are not the best items to buy.  Often the good items are not prominently displayed.


If you see an item on a store, don’t just check out with it. First, think for about 10 minutes about the actual uses. Is it something you need versus “maybe nice to have”? If it is the last item on the shelf, grab it and leave it on your cart then browse about the item on your phone. Check reviews to see if the product is even worth buying on your phone. Think very, very carefully. You do not want to be buying items that will collect dust tomorrow.  If you are unsure, in most cases, err on the side of leaving it on the shelf. What if you commit to buy? Grab an image, then scan the barcode. Then using your smartphone (like Google Shopper), install a price comparison app and compare to all of the prices for that item.


For buying things online from a store website, ask for in store pick-up (to ensure that they have inventory) and then go to the store. Go to the counter and pick up. Try to minimize time spent in the aisles to minimize time wastage and reduce the risk of an impulse purchase that you may regret later. Also, if they do run out of stock, try to order online (at the discounted price) and arrange for pickup later. Most stores allow this. You can also do it at the counter.


Remember, often the sales are inventory retailers are trying to clear


The other thing to keep in mind is that the reason why I put down a purpose on that list a few months prior is because I want to know what products are actually good.


All too often, retailers are trying to clear inventory on products that did not sell well during the previous year and as a result, have aggressively marked them down.  There is often a reason why such products do not sell well. Sometimes it is marketing, but sometimes they are terrible products.


To use an example, computer components (since I’m a geek), my observations:

  1. The premium end components are not often on sale
  2. Usually it is the low to medium end (often medium end) with the most aggressive discounts
  3. Often the products that are actually high quality have discounts, but they are more modest and matched throughout other sales during the year
  4. The lesson is to look carefully at what is actually a deal.


The purpose of the list is to avoid the worst of this. Also keep in mind that retailers have other tactics too. Christmas music is used to increase sales, not for any charitable reason or for “holiday spirit”.  Be very skeptical around “free gifts” after a certain price or “free samples”. Often the products can be marked up.


Based on history, observe what was on sale last year for next year


Although you do not have to take detailed notes, it is best to remember what happened last year.


Things to remember:

  1. What stores were crowded and at what times
  2. Is it worth it to get to the crowded stores? (Versus online – you are trying to maximize the value for time spent here). If necessary, consider how you will arrive (ex: where to find parking or what bus routes were fastest)
  3. In general, I also recommend planning a route if you want to visit physical stores (I generally prefer to avoid them unless there is a truly outstanding deal, in which case, I arrange for in-store pickup).
  4. What was actually on sale? How good were the deals compared to normal prices?
  5. Who had the best sales? What websites did?
  6. The other is that you will want to keep in mind the best price comparison tools and forums. They will serve you well throughout the year.


These are important considerations for next  year. You will not be visiting the stores and online shops that did not give you good deals.


I personally do not like the crazy Christmas decorations, but  if you are into Christmas decorations, right after the holiday season is a good time to buy, provided you have the storage. The retailers are clearing their inventory and will typically discount their unsold items heavily. Remember, they are trying to move as much sales per square meter for the new year!


Also, I would advise that early on you begin creating your list in the fall of the falling year. Certain purchases where possible should be deferred to when they are on sale.


Sometimes there is a spike on Kijiji and similar sites in January


From my experiences, often there is a “spike” in January used goods. It is a bit like how people have New Year’s resolutions that they break after a couple of weeks. This is because of “buyer’s remorse” or because people bought items they really do not need. Such people clearly did not read a guide like this one!


You may be able to profit though from their impulsiveness. Strictly from a supply-demand perspective, you may be able to get a lot of deals due to increased supply from buyer’s remorse. Others may be selling their old items having upgraded. Used goods often carry a huge discount.  Even goods that have been barely used but recently bought often carry a 20-40% discount.  They are like automobiles – the minute you walk off the lot, it has lost a lot of its value! Your mileage may vary and it depends on where you live. That is one reason why I erred on not buying items you were unsure about.


Just be careful when buying used goods and look for signs of damage. Also remember there can be some unsavory figures on such websites.


Otherwise, if you play your cards right, you can get some pretty decent deals by buying used.





I do not encourage consumerism for the sake of it. I believe that all purchases should serve a purpose and that you should try to minimize waste as much as possible. Buy what you need, not on impulse. You may regret it otherwise.


If you can shop rationally, I think that there are some decent deals.  You are going to find that they are not nearly as good as what retailers hype them, but they are decent. Your goal is to buy what you need, avoid impulse purchases, and get the best prices you can realistically get, while keeping the time investment relatively modest. Likewise, buying used can be a good source of savings.


I hope you can get some actual deals, watch-out for traps, and avoid the worst of the crowds! Remember to keep this guide in mind as well and be sure to share it so that your friends and family do not fall into the same trap.

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