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Your Last-Minute Holiday Shopping Guide

Seven tips for finding the perfect gift—without breaking your budget.

THE HOLIDAYS ARE, ABOVE ALL, A TIME FOR FAMILY to enjoy time together. But exchanging gifts is a big part of that experience. Some people plan months in advance to buy the perfect gifts for everyone on their list; others love waiting until the last minute, certain that serendipity will lead them to some unexpected treasures.

Bargains, of course, can be harder to find when you wait, which may be why more than half of holiday gift givers have already started shopping: 41% began in October or earlier, according to the National Retail Federation's 2016 Consumer Holiday Spending Survey. If you're a procrastinator—or just haven't had the time to go shopping—never fear. The following tips can help you survive the last-minute rush without going over budget.

1. Make a list—and check it twice. Write down everyone you plan to give gifts to—from your nearest and dearest to the mail carrier. Then put a dollar figure next to each name. Having price limits in mind makes it far easier to avoid overspending.

Many of the people on your list may get more joy from knowing you're contributing to a cause in their name than they might get from receiving yet another sweater or electronic toy.

2. Give the gift of giving. Search online for nonprofits that match the values of the people on your list. Many of them may get more joy from knowing you're contributing to a cause in their name than they might get from receiving yet another sweater or electronic toy. For suggestions, take a look at New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's annual gift guide, "Gifts with Meaning."

3. Bring your smart phone. When you spot a deal at the mall, look before you pounce. A growing number of shoppers—38% of smartphone owners, according to the National Retail Federation—are using their phones to see if they can get the same item for a better price elsewhere. If the store has a price-match policy, you can cash in on extra savings right then and there.

4. Save time, money and gas by shopping online. Just think: No crowds. Endless options at your fingertips. And no hands-on temptations. (According to researchers at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, holding an item can boost your desire to buy it—and your willingness to pay more for it.)

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For tips on making your holiday travel stress-free, read “Holiday Travel: Getting There Can Be Half the Fun.”

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5. Pay attention to shipping charges. A great deal can look a lot less amazing once you factor in shipping costs. Keep an eye out for retailers who ship for free, and search for coupon codes for free shipping.

6. Take a break between purchases. Yale University researchers have found that making one purchase can trigger what they call the "shopping momentum effect"—a psychological impulse to buy more items. To counteract this, just walk away from the store or computer screen for a few minutes after making each purchase.

7. Start earlier next year. Last-minute shoppers estimated that they would spend an average of $438 more than those who had gotten an early jump on holiday shopping, according to a 2015 survey by the American Research Group.

3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor

  1. What's a realistic budget for holiday spending if we want to stay on track to meet our goals?
  2. How can I free up money for that big-ticket item I've always wanted to buy my kids?
  3. I'm thinking about a family getaway over the holidays. How can Merrill Lynch's relationship with the Virtuoso travel network work for me?

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