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Don’t Let Shipping Costs Bust Your Holiday Budget

This year, deliver cheer—on time and for less—with these smart mailing tips.

We spend plenty of time shopping for holiday gift bargains. But not all of our gift recipients are nearby, which means we have to ship those presents hither and yon—and all the money we just saved on bargains flies out the window.

Shipping gifts in a cost-effective manner shouldn’t be an afterthought. If you don’t plan ahead, you could end up paying nearly as much—or more—for delivery as you did for the gift itself. Instead, you need to “send smarter” so you’ll establish good “gift equity,” as gift-giving expert Robyn Spizman calls it.

“One year, I bought chocolate chip cookies in a jar,” says Spizman, author of The Giftionary: An A-Z Reference Guide for Solving Your Gift-Giving Dilemmas … Forever! and Make It Memorable. “I took it to the post office and found out that it required so much in postage costs that it was completely out of balance with the price of the gift itself.”

Fortunately, you can take several savvy steps to significantly reduce the cost burden of holiday shipping while also saving time. Spizman and other experts offer these suggestions to help you stamp out high shipping costs:

Don’t procrastinate. Think of year-end gift purchasing as a year-round activity (click here to read more on this topic). Shopping early means you won’t have to resort to expensive expedited options to get everything delivered in time for the holidays.

“The difference between ground and expedited air shipping prices can be significant for the larger, heavier packages,” says Joseph Few, founder of gift-giving site ArtTownGifts.com. “While ground might be as low as $10.99, overnight next-day air can be as high as $65 for the same item. And for Saturday drop-off, the cost goes higher.”

If you wait until the last minute and pay for the pricey overnight air rate, you have no recourse if the package arrives late. Delivery guarantees typically are suspended during the holidays. “All it takes is a little snow to cause delays across the entire system,” Few says.

Shop light. Because weight makes such a difference, you may want to buy items that are nice but weigh less. Clothing such as nice sweaters and sports jerseys of the recipients’ favorite team can make a positive impression. “I’ll even consider socks,” Spizman says, “but something like cashmere socks for a loved one who truly embraces decadence.”

Be mindful of shipping schedules. Whether you’re mailing a present you bought locally or you’re sending it directly from an online vendor, you need to plan ahead so the gift will arrive on time. Most carriers and online vendors don’t ship out, transport or deliver packages on weekends or holidays.

Even the time of day is critical. “Packages are picked up in the afternoon by the shippers,” Few says, “so your online order needs to be placed early in the morning if you want it delivered the same day. If you place an order or drop off a package on a Friday night, it’s not going to go out until Monday morning, even if they offer same-day service.”

Pick the right box. Repurposed materials can save on expenses and preserve the environment, but you may want to think twice about using a free used box to ship your gifts. “The more times a box is used, the more it loses its strength and protective quality,” says Susan Rosenberg, of UPS. “Plus, leftover shipping labels can cause confusion about a package’s destination.”

Select a new, corrugated box that’s specifically designed for shipping, and never exceed the box’s maximum recommended weight. Some shippers charge based on box size, so choose a box that has just enough room for the present and some padding.

Provide adequate protection. You don’t have to buy expensive bubble wrap or styrofoam peanuts to keep goods from getting damaged along the way. “Tissue paper will do, or try plastic grocery bags,” Few says. “If you use newspaper, keep in mind that the ink will rub off, so put a plastic or brown bag around the gift.” Or recycle padding from packages you’ve received. UPS’s Rosenberg suggests adding at least 2 inches of cushioning on all sides of each item. Once you’ve packed your box, go to ShipGooder.com to get estimates for several carriers based on weight, size and ZIP codes.

Double-check mailing addresses. Shippers cost themselves plenty, thanks to address label errors. In fact, shipping companies may charge up to $30 for an address correction, Few says. “In addition, when your package is lost due to an incorrect address, the company will not honor any replacement guarantees,” he says. “Something as seemingly insignificant as a wrong ZIP code or an incorrect apartment number could mean the difference between a timely arrival or a lost item.”

Beat the crowds. Time is money, so plan your post office trip for light-volume times. Stay away during the workday lunch hour. Instead, arrive between 3 and 5 p.m., which is a heavy carpool/work commute time frame.

“I like to go when workers and parents are doing other things,” says Spizman, who has dispensed her gift-giving wisdom on Today and CNN. “Also, you can get to the post office 10 minutes before it opens to make sure you’re first in line. Making friends with postal workers at the counters helps, too. They’ll give you all kinds of assistance in protecting the package and reducing expenses.”

Leave the shipping to online retailers. If you want to shop and ship all in one, you’ll find an assortment of special shipping deals on the Internet. For $79 a year, ShopRunner.com offers two-day free shipping and returns for nearly 100 major retailers, including Toys R Us, PetSmart and Radio Shack. For $99 a year, Amazon Prime includes free two-day shipping; you can pay a little more for next-day services.

Shop on Free Shipping Day. Yes, there really is such a thing! In 2014, it falls on Thursday, Dec. 18. Since 2008, when the event launched, more than 900 companies—including Home Depot, Harry and David, Lands’ End and many more Click & Save retailers—have participated. Go to freeshippingday.com for more information.

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