As you steel yourself to run the annual gauntlet of holiday shopping, the first thing you should do is map out a budget.
Settle on a figure for how much you can comfortably afford to spend without going into debt. Figure on all your usual expenses as well as things like mailing expenses, holiday entertaining and travel costs.
Next, decide how to best stretch those dollars. The Internet has made holiday shopping vastly easier than it used to be, because you can get ideas for gifts online from your favorite retailers. And you can still do it the old-fashioned way, too, by leafing through the advertising circulars that come with your local newspaper.
Once you've bookmarked or printed out the online possibilities and clipped out the newspaper ads, do some price comparisons online.
For service members and their families, one place to focus for holiday shopping is the military exchange system. All the military exchanges have specials between now and the first of the year, and those specials change frequently. You can check online for specials at your local store.
In addition, there are also some new options at the military exchanges' online store and catalog.
Besides the 2008 holiday catalog, with its wide range of gift possibilities, the exchanges have published a 2008 holiday electronics catalog, available at all main stores and online at http://www.usmc-mccs.org">www.usmc-mccs.org, http://www.navy-nex.com">www.navy-nex.com, http://www.aafes.com/">www.aafes.com and http://www.cg-exchange.com">www.cg-exchange.com.
The 36-page catalog offers HD televisions, Blu-ray Disc and DVD players, digital cameras, iPods, MP3 players, computers and many other electronic items. Prices are good through Jan. 1.
Also, several new vendors have set up shop in the Exchange Online Mall:
The Leisure Boutique offers military shoppers 5 percent to 10 percent off all 40,000 items in its craft supply store, which features a large selection of supplies for scrapbooking, knitting and painting. Free shipping is offered on purchases over $75.
Bullseye Calendars offers military shoppers 40 percent to 50 percent off calendars.
Get Etched offers laser etching and customized gifts in everything from black granite to 3-D crystal. The company offers a 5 percent to 15 percent discount off regularly priced items, and ground shipping is free on most granite items.
eChapterOne.com offers more than 100,000 best-selling books in small e-book format, with free downloadable first chapters for many titles. The company offers military shoppers a 20 percent discount off all e-books.
Room It Up offers a 10 percent discount to military shoppers on lap desks, backpacks, cosmetic cases and other items.
Remember that to get these retailers' discounts, you must go to their sites through the Exchange Online Mall. You can get to the mall by clicking the icon on each of the exchange service Web sites or you can get to it directly at http://www.exchangeonlinemall.com">www.exchangeonlinemall.com.
More than 85 retailers ranging from Patriot Outfitters to Books A Million are in the Exchange Online Mall.
The mall has plenty of other daily and weekly specials through the first of the year, so check back often as you make your holiday shopping rounds.