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Walmart workers protesting in D.C. the day before Thanksgiving (Photo: Our Walmart)

An old maxim says that it's better to give than to receive but – true fact – historians agree that statement was first written at least1,500 years before the invention of the consumerist faux-holiday called “Black Friday.”

Legend has it the name came about because the day after Thanksgiving (and semi-official start of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/etc. holiday-shopping season) is when most retailers would finally break even and start showing a profit for that fiscal year – the day their accounts finally switched from red ink to black. But if you have or ever held a retail job, you know Black Friday earns its name by being the worst workday of the year – unless, perhaps, you work for a store forcing you to come in on Thanksgiving (without even earning extra holiday pay, likely as not).

From a customer's perspective, Black Friday offers you the chance to wake up insanely early on a day off, or even camp out overnight in a parking lot during the cold season in the northern hemisphere, and fight enormous mob-style crowds (who trample the occasional person to death, whoopsie) in hope of saving a few dollars off the price of whatever “door-busters” the stores are trying to sell this year.

Go Ortho

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Christ Pantocrator Mosaic (Photo via Wikipedia)

Of course, the single easiest way to save money, if you mustcelebrate a gift-giving holiday called “Christmas,” is to go by the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which does not observe the holiday until January 6. You'll find lower prices and smaller crowds for your holiday shopping, if you delay the official start of shopping season from “Black Friday” to December 26.

You might also consider joining the Amish or some other group with actual religious – not just financial – objections to buying cutting-edge latest-gen electronics costing hundreds of dollars.

In all seriousness: cutting-edge electronics and other high-price appliances make poor holiday gifts anyway, for several reasons. The first is that any major appliance-type item makes for a poor surprise gift.

Suppose, for example, you're thinking of getting “a computer” for somebody. Nowadays, “computers” are almost like “clothes” – a single word encompassing too many options to easily count them all, but plenty of opportunities to give a gift the recipient doesn't want or need. What will she use the computer for — is it primarily a tool or a toy? Is a tactile keyboard necessary, or are touchscreen controls sufficient? A student or journalist who primarily reads and writes text documents will have different computing needs than a graphic designer, and someone who primarily wants Internet access might be better off ignoring “computers” altogether in favor of a smartphone or tablet or other device, especially depending on where they live and what ISP bandwidth options are available in their area, and ….

You get the picture: some items work better as carefully researched and personally chosen purchases, not as surprise gifts picked by someone else.

Of course, it's quite possible someone has carefully researched and personally chosen what they want – especially if you're buying for children who have given you and/or Santa extremely specific wish lists, including catalog numbers and links to make purchases online. When it comes to buying the latest electronics, or whatever is the current season's high-demand item, the bald truth is: there probably isn't any legal, scam-free way to find a good bargain price on that — not if you are determined to get it before this Dec. 25.

iThings

PhotoOf course, the latest-gen game systems and iThings that are super-expensive this month are pretty much guaranteed to significantly drop in price once the “holiday season” is officially over (although, despite previous cracks about postponing Christmas until the first week of January, the serious price declines on today's hot new techno-whatever probably won't kick in until February or March).

So that's how you save money (or don't) on electronic gifts. But chances are you still have to buy plenty of less-extravagant (though still potentially expensive) gifts for various people in your life — how do you do that without breaking the bank or putting yourself into debt?

Plenty of thrifty-living blogs will advise you to save money on presents by ignoring the mass-produced corporate whatever in favor of giving something more personal, perhaps something you made yourself. That's great advice – if you have the talent, skill and time required to produce handmade gifts anyone would actually want. I personally do not.

But I do have a knack for secondhand and other forms of bargain shopping, and I genuinely enjoy browsing flea markets, thrift stores and other cheapo-discount stores anyway. So I keep an eye open all year long, for any oddball gift-worthy item to store in my gift closet (actually a couple large boxes on a single closet shelf, but never mind that).

China pattern

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A Galileo thermometer (Photo via Wikipedia)

Of course, the better you know someone, the easier it is to find just the right present for them, and at a bargain price, too. (My personal favorite amazing-find gift story is this: a friend of mine inherited her grandmother's china – which had much sentimental value to her, though that pattern is not actually valuableon the open antiques market. The china set wasn't complete, though; a few pieces had gone missing or broken over the years, including the sugar bowl and a couple of salad plates. Yet one weekend, while browsing at a local church's rummage sale, danged if I didn't find a sugar bowl, salad plates and a few other pieces in my friend's grandmother's china pattern – and I only paid $3 for all of it!)

Unfortunately, such perfect-find stories are rare — and it really isn't practical to go around buying and holding any mismatched china pieces you see, just in case you one day meet someone looking to finish that set. But I also keep my gift closet supplied with more “generic”-style gifts, bought throughout the year and appropriate for workplace Secret Santa programs, local-club gift exchanges and any other situations where you're expected to give a present to someone you might not know too well. One year, around March or so, an overstock store near me had a stockpile of colorful brass Galileo thermometers selling for only $5 each — guess what my colleagues, mailman and similar people all got for Christmas that year?

I hope their pleased exclamations were all sincere, and that they all genuinely enjoy having a Galileo thermometer on display in their homes or offices — but if they don't, at least those thermometers let me affordably meet my socially expected grownup gift-giving obligations for another year. (And their recipients can always turn around and give the thermometers to someone else, provided they're familiar with the ins and outs of successful re-gifting.)


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