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Shoppers, Get The Best Reward

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The average shopper will spend $688 this holiday season. Together, Americans will spend $447 billion on holiday gifts this year, according to a report by the National Retail Federation.

If shoppers play their cards right, that could translate into serious rewards points. That’s especially true this year, since many retailers and credit card companies are using aggressive – but temporary – rewards points promotions to get people to shop more with them and less with their competitors.

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A number of stores are even tripling their rewards programs. Toys ‘R’ Us will give shoppers 10% of their money back on holiday purchases, plus up to $50 in rebates, according to a story by SmartMoney.com. That’s three times the store’s normal rewards program of $5 off for every $150 a consumer spends.

There are also ways to combine purchases and payment methods to save even more money. A shopper who buys $250 worth of electronics at Best Buy gets a $5 certificate towards future purchase, according to SmartMoney. If she uses a Citi Dividend Platinum Select card, which gives a 5% bonus on purchases from electronics stores during the holiday season, she can get another $12.50. And if she makes the whole purchase through a points website like Ebates.com, she can save another $2.50.

Total savings: $20 on a $250 purchase.

With so many companies offering so many different ways to save, expect to do a little research if you want to take the most advantage of these programs. “The best use depends on the program,” Chris Barnard, president of rewards points website Points.com, told SmartMoney.com. “It varies pretty widely.”

So here are some tips for how to make this season’s points bonanza work for you.

Store Loyalty Programs. Retailer rebates take many forms – cash back, certificates for future purchases, points towards gasoline purchases, etc. Most award the points using their loyalty programs. Consider signing up for them. Be aware: loyalty cards allow retailers to track you and your purchases. But if you’re OK with that, loyalty programs can help you find good deals.

Concentrate Your Shopping. Many store loyalty programs and credit card rewards programs give you more points the more you spend. So instead of spreading your gift buying around to many different stores, and charging it on a few different cards, it makes sense to put it all on one card, and buy as much as you can at the same store. Which also means: Choose wisely. Shop not just for low prices, but also for the best rewards deals.

Use Online Rewards Websites. There are many independent ones, including Points.com, Ebates.com, SwagBucks and MyPoints. Most credit card companies, hotels and airlines have their own points websites, plus some big retailers. Remember again to concentrate your buying – choose a rewards website that offers discounts for the stores at which you plan to shop. Also, read the find print. In some cases, using a rewards website makes it impossible to use retailer coupons. Check before you buy to see which offers the biggest savings.

Take the Gift Card. Stores, credit card companies, airlines and points websites often let you choose whether to receive your points as cash, gift cards or as money toward future purchases. Take the gift card. In most cases, that’s where retailers give the best deal. An example: If you use Citibank’s ThankYou.com website, you need 371,000 points to get an 8 GB iPod, which will cost you $371. Just buying the thing at Best Buy costs $230.

Image: Benson Kua, via Flickr.com

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