When smart planning backfires

By Mir
December 15, 2009

I feel somewhat disingenuous filing this under “Questions Answered,” as I’m not sure I really have an answer. But we’ll see what we can do. The very pretty Kim writes:

Lovely Mir,

I have adopted your gift closet approach to shopping year-round, but this holiday season, it is biting me in the butt. All of my husband’s family live on the West coast and we live on the East coast. When I took several boxes to be shipped the other day, the cost of shipping was equal to or more than the cost of the gifts inside the boxes! And I was shipping using the cheapest option available (i.e. UPS ground or similar). A couple were heavy, but even the light ones were pricier than I expected. All the money I have carefully saved over the year is lost in shipping those gifts across the country. Should I have shipped sooner, like before Thanksgiving? Are there other options I should consider (like Sherpas)?

After hemorrhaging all that money to UPS and FedEx, I am considering abandoning the gift closet approach for the holidays, and instead use something like Amazon Prime to ship them and have the parents/spouse wrap them for me. I won’t have the fun of wrapping, but even a year of Amazon Prime is less than I spent on shipping those boxes.

What’s a bargain-lover to do?

Aside from the fact that Kim bring The Funny (yes, absolutely look into a Sherpa…), she raises an issue I was just mentioning to a friend the other day: Is it worth it to save on this stuff if you then blow the savings in shipping?

Let’s deconstruct the problem a little.

First: Does it make sense to have a gift closet? I still say yes. You will sometimes need local gifts; for thank-yous, for hostesses, for birthday parties. There are lots of good reasons to have some “emergency gifts” on hand. Aside from that, as aggravating as shipping costs are, if you pick up something for Uncle Joe in June because it’s a great deal and you know he’ll love it for Christmas, chances are you’re saving even more money on it than you’ll spend on shipping.

Second: So what are the gift closet caveats? First and foremost—weight. That great deal for Uncle Joe had best be on a book or something small. If it’s on the Ronco Splat-a-Matic 4000 that weighs thirty pounds and you’re likely to have to ship it? Pass.

Third: How do you save on shipping? The sad fact is that when gas went up to $4+/gallon last year (was that just last year…?), many other services which have traditionally raised their prices slowly went to huge rate hikes. You know this if you’ve bought a plane ticket or shipped anything since then. I use the USPS for everything except really large/heavy boxes, mostly because it’s convenient. For larger packages UPS and FedEx start to be less expensive, but really, I don’t think there’s any delivery service that’s significantly cheaper than another. Shipping is expensive everywhere.

There are a few ways to save, though.

1) Media Mail. You can ship books/DVDs/CDs via USPS Media Mail for a lower rate. It also takes a lot longer, so be prepared for that, particularly around the holidays. (And because someone will ask: Generally no, they don’t check to make sure your package only contains media, but I’ve heard tell of spot checks, so I’m going to recommend honesty here.)

2) Put it all in one box. If you’re shipping to a cluster of friends/relatives in the same area, you’re always going to be better off shipping one box than a bunch of them, because there’s a basic foundation charge you’ll only be paying once, rather than repeatedly. So if one of your recipients would be kind enough to play Santa and distribute the other contents, do that.

3) Pack creatively. Rather than sending those wine glasses with two pounds of padding, put that package inside the box with the sweaters for your nieces. Voila! Two birds, one stone.

4) Compare rates. Again, I don’t see a huge variation from shipper to shipper, but everyone has their rates available online, so check before you ship. Weigh your package—even if it’s only an approximate weight, like by you getting on and off your bathroom scale with it—and do your research.

As long as you’re not shipping express, Kim, shipping earlier in the year isn’t going to be any cheaper. Waiting til the last minute is always expensive, of course.

And as for just doing everything via Prime—look, I love Prime as much as the next person. But the shipping savings may end up being a wash if your dedication to Prime lands you somewhere that you justify paying full price because it’s easy. It’s up to each of us to honestly assess our spending habits and determine where we can save the best, you know?

Readers, additional thoughts?


  1. USPS now has the ‘flat rate’ boxes – which is great if it will fit into the small (I think that one is $4.95) but not so great if you have to bump up to medium ($10.95 I believe). But if you can pack a lot into one box it might be worth checking out and the bonus is they will deliver these boxes to your door for free, and pick them up from your mailbox or front door step once you schedule. So hassle wise, saves lots of time/effort. My only complaint is how small the small is – I couldn’t fit any of the books I wanted to ship into a small – a regular paperback would fit.

    We use prime for most items but only if its truly the cheapest price for the item in question – often it isn’t.

  2. Do you work for a company that has a shipping agreement with one or more of the shippers (UPS, FedEx, etc.)? If so, ask your office manager if you’re allowed to ship something via the company’s account. For example: I can bring a box into work and ship it via FedEx, handing the office manager a personal check or cash for the amount FedEx charges us. Which is less than I would be paying as an individual shipping at a FedEx store.

    If you’re not allowed to do personal shipping for reimbursement, they’ll usually let you use the nice postal scale so you can get an exact weight 🙂

  3. I only use the flat rate boxes, they are the best deal! The smallest one is 8.95 and the biggest one is 12.95. The only draw back is the size, the but lbs are unlimited.

  4. Oh, Beth, you are SMART! I totally forgot about that. Great idea!

    Kelly and Brenda—I hate the flat-rate boxes. I don’t think they’re much of a bargain, as it seems like unless you were shipping something unusually small yet heavy (lead BBs, perhaps?) there’s not much savings.

  5. The “pack one box” thing works if there are birthdays within a few months as well. If I’m shipping to someone for Christmas and there are birthdays October through February that I’d be mailing as well, it ALL of it gets mailed together. Takes a bit of planing, but I only end up mailing birthday gifts about three times a year this way. No, the kids don’t end up with their own boxes, but they generally don’t mind because they get COOL gifts from my awesome and extensive gift closet.

  6. Now that I live a thousand miles away from my hometown and most of my family, I am a big fan of shopping online and letting the site do the shipping for me. True, I don’t have the fun of wrapping, and I’m too cheap to shell out $7 to have the company wrap it for me, but it still saves a lot of money to do it this way. Many sites have very reasonable flat shipping rates and free shipping offers, and Mir is very pretty about posting those wonderful percent-off-and-free-shipping codes. With a bit of hunting, I’ve been able to get great deals on gifts and not break the bank on shipping… actually, I think the only gift I’ve paid shipping on was a $350 purse I got for $65 on 6pm.com for my sister, and in that case, the $6.95 shipping fee didn’t hurt too much!

  7. I too live on the East Coast with all of my family out West. I use USPS. Sure, sometimes you get burned on the $9 to ship a stupid padded envelope, but that flat rate thing is a good deal. Let me tell you that I got my $ worth this year with a package for my 4 nieces, packed and packed with books, crafts, etc. It weighed a ton (okay, I have the receipt and it was 8 lbs) and only $10.35. Good deal. Shipping earlier won’t save you $ but it will save your sanity by avoiding those lines at the post office.

    I still stick with the gift closet concept. I stash away things all year long that I feel are very appropriate for my loved ones. If I felt the pressure at the holidays to rush out and find such things, I think I would be at a loss. Yes, shipping may be expensive, but you did save on the thoughtful gifts. That’s my theory anyway.

  8. I live a long way from our family, but I have a deal with my mother-in-law (who also loves a good bargain.) If I find a deal on online, I buy it…no matter what time of year…and have it sent to her. I shoot her an email telling her to expect it, and she stores it in an extra closet…basically it’s my long-distance gift closet. Then when the holidays or birthdays roll around, I tell her what item to wrap for who. Then I usually send her a gift card from Target or somewhere for her to pick up wrapping paper, tape, etc. It’s a great compromise that’s worked well for us.

  9. Ok if you take boxes to the store your shipping charges will be out of this world. One of the best purchases I’ve made is a digital postal scale for $15 up to 35lbs. Then I use either paypal multi-order shipping in my paypal account or USPS.com or UPS.com or allproshipping.com (30% off ups.com prices) for shipping packages. The UPS store marks up USPS and UPS prices. By packing and shipping at home I am able to control the size of the package better keeping in mind weight I also am able to choose from any of the shipping methods I desire. UPS packages can be dropped off with a prepaid shipping label at any UPS store at no charge. The usps packages can be picked up by free carrier pick up or dropped off at the post office. This makes it fabulous.

    Often packages of clothes for instance don’t fit inside a flat rate shipping box from USPS so I’ll fill a box send it with allproshipping.com (a 15+ lb package) for about $11. It’s fabulous. And though the package is bigger than a flat rate box it is cheaper than a flat rate box. I can go on for hours about doing my own shipping but it is so worth it.

  10. Okay, who else thinks Angela is looking mighty pretty today? I’ve never heard of allproshipping.com but I’m sure going to check them out now. Thanks, Angela!

  11. Thank you all for the fabulous ideas. 🙂 I am absolutely going to look into allproshipping.com, and maybe work out a deal with my MIL for her to become my remote gift closet. This blog, and its lovely readers, are simply the BEST!

  12. Two notes to add to Angela’s great advise. By packing and weighting it yourself, you’ll see when that little extra padding puts your package into the next weight category. A 3lb package costs the same as a 3lb 15oz package, but hitting the 4lb mark adds $$. Also, I beleive UPS adds $3 for residential delivery, so if you can ship to a relative’s office, you may save some money.

  13. I experienced this problem in a dramatic way this year. My family is in Canada; normally we travel to them at some point in the fall. It wasn’t possible this year, so I lovingly put together boxes to send. I’ll never never never do it again. Did you know that international parcel post no longer exists? If it weighs more than 4 pounds, you have to send it Priority or Express. Yikes.

  14. Oh Pamela….is Int’l first class available from Canada to the States? Last week I had a couple items on eBay sell to Canadian buyers who neglected to ask me for an adjusted invoice so rather than pay the extra shipping out of pocket, I used first class. Both of them got their items in about a week – one was in New Brunswick, the other Saskatchewan. A 3# mug with padding cost me about $7 at USPS vs $25.95 for priority.

  15. Oh….I saw the 4# caveat. Never mind. Bummer!

  16. I periodically need to overnight mail things to relatives so I opened an account with fedex. i get cheaper rates on overnight delivery than if I was to go to OfficeMax or Kinko’s or wherever, plus I just go to their website and tell them to come to pick it up on my porch. Free. This year for the holidays I was cursing USPS and their hours and fees and my husband said “why don’t you send it FedEx ground with your account?” Ding!Ding!Ding! So easy, cheap, convenient. plus since i have an account i get cheaper rates that the standard ones. and i don’t have a business, i’m just a private citizen.

  17. Brilliant! Now Mir find us an amazing deal on a scale for home so we can start shipping.

  18. I was at the post office yesterday picking up a flat rate box, and the usps clerk there said that (for a medium flat rate box at least), if your package was less than 4 lbs, it was cheaper to do regular priority mail. I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s just what he said.

    Also, don’t forget that if you ship through paypal you save $ on priority shipping.

  19. Two things:

    1. If you work for a largish company, they often have negotiated volume deals with FedEx or UPS. They’re more than happy to extend this to employees, since that only increases the volume. You’ll usually need to go through a set up process to get your UPS/FedEx account tied to your employer’s (although YOU pay the bill) to get the discount. I pay about $5 for a FedEx overnight letter, for example. On a recent FedEx ground shipment of a 27 pound box, I paid under $12. UPS wanted $20.

    2. NEVER EVER EVER use counter service — where you label and pay for shipping at the counter — for FedEx or UPS. You can’t pay more. Rather, weigh your package at home (kitchen scale for things under 2-3 pounds, bathroom scale for bigger items), pre-print the label, and drop off the package at a UPS Store, FedEx Office (nee Kinko’s), etc. This gets you the best rate. Note that both FedEx and UPS will fix your weight (according to the real scale when you drop off the package), so don’t sweat it if your weight isn’t exact.

    And, above all, listen to Mir.

  20. Just a heads up – I have had UPS stores deny to let me drop off boxes at their locations if it had been prepaid or was using a shipper’s account number. Extremely frustrating for me – it varies from UPS store to UPS store (since they are all individually owned).

    I love my gift closets for all the birthday parties my twins are invited to. I pick up $20 gifts for $7. Since most kids are bringing gifts in the $15 range, it makes us look lavish for half the price. Yay!

  21. Here’s an idea my SIL uses. When they come to visit, she usually bring the next batch of gifts with her since she is fairly certain we won’t be seeing each other for the next birthday, etc. They are all wrapped and ready to open, either on the birthday, or even right then. Also, she stuffs her envelopes full. I mean, 2 cards in one, plus more. For example, my husband’s bday and our anniversary are 2 days apart, so she puts both cards in one envie.
    I was going to write how I don’t like the whole “here’s your gift 6 months early” thing, but if you are looking to save your pennies, I can testify that my SIL know how to pinch pennies so hard they cry.

  22. Stacy – Wow. I’ve never had a UPS store prohibit me from dropping off a prepaid package. I assume they got a small kickback from UPS for taking the packages. (Good thing I prefer FedEx Ground over UPS most of the time these days.)

  23. I do a few things.

    1. I use the flat-rate boxes for stuff going all the way across the country. My best deal was shipping 16 pounds for $12.95, but granted that was an exception. Still, as soon as the package hits 2 or 3 pounds (I forget which), the flat-rate is a savings for me (even over parcel post) with one household I commonly ship to.

    2. I spend more than $25 and Amazon ships it for me for free.

    3. When I visit family I fly Southwest, which lets me check 2 bags for free. I can bring a ton of stuff with me if I’ve shopped ahead.

    But I use my gift closet for local family, hostess gifts, and kid parties.

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