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So December is steadily meandering your way just as surely as your modest paycheck. Sure, you find the money for the occasional new CD or denims, but how on earth are you going to find the cash for gifts for your entire family of five? I have two words for you: "DISCOUNT STORES."

National surveys consistently report that families plan to limit spending on gifts this holiday season in light of the economic recession. Enter Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, A.J. Wright's and Burlington, just to name a few. You may not realize that these aren't last year's items, or even last season's. These are the same gifts that reside on mall shelves at this very moment, at double the price. All companies (including Express, Guess, Abercrombie, Gap, bebe, Billabong, Quicksilver and Nine West, just to name a few) have trade shows prior to each season to sell their goods. What is left over is bought by discount stores, making it possible for them to have those perfect Candies heels you've been eyeing -- for $12, rather than $38.

As someone working for $7 an hour, who definitely has expensive taste and an urge to find desirable gifts, these stores are my saviors. I can find quite a few unique and inexpensive items with minimal "shopping around."

It is important to note that while one store could supply you with all of your gifts, certain stores have their best deals in certain departments. For example, Burlington probably has the best deals on shoes, while the newly opened A.J. Wright's has a plethora of inexpensive jarred and boxed gourmet goods, coffees and teas, and stainless steel kitchen accessories for the culinary artist in your life. Marshall's and Maxx have new styles of tops and pants from Express and Parasuco, and a really good selection of brands you might not otherwise find around here, bringing some originality to your gifts. They often have large shipments of Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and Nine West.

For craftsy people or homemade gifts, look to Michael's or Jo-Ann Fabrics. They run coupons in the Sunday Buffalo News that can be used to buy art supplies, craft items, or to frame a treasured photo. To wrap it all up, try Shopper's Choice for inexpensive Gibson wrapping paper and gift bags for about a dollar.

In addition, stores vary on return policies, so be careful! For example, Maxx and Marshalls have a loose return policy: full cash or credit refunds within 30 days, and longer when their holiday extension policies go into effect. These extensions allow for gift returns as late as the second of January. Burlington is far stricter -- returns within 14 days, no cash back, only store credit, and no credit back on charge cards. As always, save receipts!

Where you should look all depends on what you're looking for. If you're a girl buying for a large group of girlfriends, try Dots for trendy and affordable jewelry and hair accessories (especially this season's turquoise trends).

For stocking stuffers, try Walgreen's, with a plethora of monthly rebates that will allow you free gifts such as makeup and hair products. No, you don't have to cut up the packages for UPC codes! Other gift ideas include Nine West wallets, perfume, bath sets, Steve Madden slippers, and Tricoastal Design hair accessories from Marshalls, Maxx and Burlington. For teacher's gifts like holiday stocking stuffers or candles, seek out Burlington in your quest.

Regarding outlet shopping, the Prime Outlets Mall in Niagara Falls has some of the best, including Fossil (great for unique belts, watches and accessories for males and females alike). Just be wary: outlet stores are often not the best price on their own products. The Guess outlet, for example, was selling their belts for around $22-26, but the same belts come in to Marshalls, Maxx and Burlington for around $14.99.

For cards to set atop your masterpiece, peek into the Factory Card Outlet for 49-cent cards everyday. Note that all cards are the same price, so take advantage of the deals on brand-name cards and unique handmade craft cards. It may take a few minutes to locate the better merchandise! Also fun are their holiday helium balloons, great gift-toppers for $1.99.

Traveling? You'll want to check out Ross Stores, the king of discount stores. (Try for gift certificates and store locations.) This is where you get really spoiled. The sales rack is unbelievable. (I got a DKNY shirt for $2.49 last year. How about a Roxy tank for 49 cents?) Frequently, when only a few of a certain style of an item are left, they are seriously marked down. (Wearing an uncommon size usually brings better markdowns.) As always, remember to check the paper for post-it events like Maxx's Ski Sale Event where perfect gifts are often found. Generally speaking, discount stores are cheaper, but shopping on the weekends and using extra-money-off coupons from such stores as Kaufmann's can bring down costs substantially. Also check the mail for coupons from Linens 'N' Things and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. These store also honor competitors' coupons, saving you as much as $5 off a $15 purchase.

The Dollar Tree has great stocking stuffers such as Gap socks, Conair hairbrushes, Trident gum, Naturistic makeup, Herbal Essences skin products, IBC Rootbeer and Bic Wave Pens. The stock is never the same, so multiple visits may be necessary.

Happy hunting!

Ashley Schachter is a sophomore at Nichols.

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