4 holiday shopping tips to save you money, time and sanity

Do one thing: Check three websites before you buy: CamelCamelCamel, Keepa and Google. (Fine, that’s more than one thing.)

It’s bigger than you: You might believe that you don’t fall for marketing gimmicks and holiday season shopping guilt. But we all do. It’s OK.

Feel good about: Stores are unusually nervous this year about being stuck with unsold merchandise. Retailers’ anxiety can be your gain.

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Technology can be your friend or your enemy in the march through the holiday shopping minefield.

The internet is screaming BUY THIS NOW or LAST CHANCE. The zeal for a good deal or to make people happy can make you buy dumb stuff. You could spend infinite hours sleuthing online to shave every dollar from your gift-giving budget.

Or you can still save money, time and your sanity with these manageable technology tactics:

Check three price-comparison sites.

CamelCamelCamel and Keepa are free websites that show you the typical prices paid for a product on Amazon. Whether you’re buying on Amazon or elsewhere, a quick search can help you feel confident that you’re paying a reasonable price. These sites are a little confusing to use, but worth slogging through.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

I typed “Wingspan board game” into the CamelCamelCamel search box and scrolled down to “Amazon price history.” Those crazy up and down lines showed that the strategy game briefly sold on Amazon for less than $40 this summer, but the game has typically sold for more than the current price of $47. You can feel pretty good if you buy now.

Keepa works similarly with product searches, and you can also download software that will let you see the price history when you are searching on Amazon’s website on a computer. This way you don’t have to remember to search at Keepa’s website.

Here is the software for Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Microsoft web browsers. Because too many companies have betrayed your trust with web browser add-ons, it might be worth deleting this software once you’re done hunting for a specific product.

One downside of these two websites is they nudge you to shop Amazon, which might not be the best for you. Read my colleague Geoffrey Fowler’s column about how a glut of ads has made it a nightmare to shop on Amazon.

Google also has more comprehensive, if problematic, price comparisons when you search for some products.

Below you’ll find the results of a Google search I did for the same Wingspan game from Stonemaier Games. The stuff on the right side is from Google’s computers comparing prices at different online and real world stores. (Those images and prices at the top are ads that stores buy from Google. I would recommend ignoring those.)

These Google price comparisons won’t pop up all the time. It won’t help if you search for a generic term like “flared jeans,” for example. And hoo boy, we’re not thrilled around here with Google turning its search results page into an overstuffed turkey of ads and Google-provided information. But honestly, this is handy.

None of these websites are foolproof, and they tend to ignore smaller stores or manufacturers. But it’s still worth trying all three when you have your eye on something and are willing to shop around.

Try the manufacturer’s website.

Many companies like Nike and Lenovo are begging you to buy their products directly from them and not from a store where they have to split your money with Amazon, Best Buy or Foot Locker. Their desperation can work to your advantage because many companies offer deals if you buy from their websites, apps or email offers.

For example, a Cleopatra doll from the L.O.L. Surprise toy company was selling for about the same price, $99, on Amazon and Walmart when I checked on Monday. But you could have bought the toy from the L.O.L. Surprise website for $90 after a 10 percent off coupon for new customers. L.O.L. Surprise was throwing in a gift, too.

There are downsides to buying from the company that makes the product. If you’re buying a bunch of stuff, it might be simpler to order from one store that sells it all. You also might not trust a smaller company to ship orders at no added cost or to reach you in time for holiday gifts.

And you may have to give them your email address for discounts, which means they will badger you forever. (I have a tip for that below.)

Boring but effective: Make a list.

None of those tactics will help you decide what, if anything, to buy. Sorry! That is the tricky part.

Caroline Moss, who runs the podcast and online community “Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!” told me that the best thing you can do when holiday shopping is to plan ahead what you want to buy. Roaming around online seeking gift-giving inspiration will waste your time and money.

“Online shopping is like being in line at the grocery store looking at the impulse candy,” Moss told me. “You just will grab anything.”

Know your limits as a shopper

This shopping advice for you is not exhaustive, and that’s on purpose.

If you’re into advanced product sleuthing, price-tracking alerts and coupon hunting, go for it! Moss’s online community created an elaborate spreadsheet of discount codes and sales for products they love. My colleague Jackie Peiser published a holiday shopping survival guide that has more tips on cash-back rewards websites and other money savers.

But know that you don’t have to do everything under the sun to optimize holiday shopping if it feels like too much work. Try to resist the urge, too, to judge yourself or others for buying too much or doing holiday shopping wrong. We’re all imperfect humans.

“This is a time of year when you can be convinced through smart marketing and incredible sales and deals that you need anything,” Moss said. “It seems easy to say don’t buy things you don’t need, but it’s a lot harder to put that into practice.”

My colleague Heather Kelly has great advice on how to figure out when online shopping links are steering you to garbage or scams.

Why email tricks that promise free Yeti coolers or other pricey products are increasingly flooding your inbox. (Vox, Sara Morrison)

What you need to know about Elon Musk’s beef with Apple

Musk, including in a flurry of tweets on Monday, has three gripes about Apple:

*Apple mostly stopped paying to promote itself on Twitter, Musk said.

*Musk said that Apple threatened to make Twitter’s app unavailable for new downloads.

*Musk previously has complained about fees that Apple will collect from anyone who pays for Twitter services like a verified account.

Musk’s tweets are not always reliable. Apple hasn’t said anything official in response. And it’s unlikely that Apple would yank Twitter from its app storefront.

But this is a useful moment to remind you that Apple and Google are dictators of what you can do on your phone. The companies are not shy about having this power, and they make it clear that their app stores are not zones of absolute free speech.

Apple and Google alone decide what apps are available for download in their official iPhone and Android stores. When you buy something digital like an e-book, virtual weapons for a video game app, or a subscription to The Washington Post, it’s likely that you’re buying from Apple and Google — not the companies selling those products. Apple and Google take a cut of what you pay for Twitter or other digital goods.

There are ways that you are hurt by Apple and Google’s near-absolute power over apps, and ways that you benefit.

In principle, Apple and Google make sure that any app you download isn’t trying to steal your money or your personal information. (In practice, their protections aren’t ironclad.) It can be handy to find apps in one central place like the Google Play store, and use payment info you already saved with Apple to buy a Disney+ subscription in the app.

But there are plenty of tech bosses like Musk who hate Apple and Google’s control, for your benefit and theirs.

Epic Games, which makes the “Fortnite” video game, has sued Apple to force the company to let people use apps without Apple’s involvement. That case is winding its way through courts. Regulators in the European Union, South Korea and other parts of the world have tried to force Apple and Google to loosen their grip on app stores.

Not much has changed yet. But know that Musk isn’t the only one chafing against Apple and Google’s decade-plus-old absolute power over apps.

If you want a 10 percent discount on socks but aren’t thrilled about giving away your email address, here’s something to try if you use Gmail: Add a plus sign to your email address, which makes it trickier for the company to track you all over the internet.

If your email address is [email protected], give the company an email address like [email protected]. (You can pick whatever words you want after the plus sign.)

The messages from the sock company will still show up in your inbox, but the company doesn’t have your real email address. That makes it harder to plug your email into advertising programs of apps like Instagram and pitch you with ads that track your digital breadcrumbs.

Read more from Heather about how to outsmart or hide from marketing emails.

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your one tiny win in a future edition of The Tech Friend.