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Do us all a favor -- shop locally

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing, and one of the best gifts you can give your community is to shop locally.

If you haven't already embraced the 3/50 Project, now is a great time to do so.

Think of the three stores you would miss the most if they closed.

Then make an honest effort to stop in those shops.

For the program to work, you need to spread $50 a month among your three favorite stores.

For every $100 spent locally, $68 comes back into the community through taxes, payroll and other expenditures.

Only $43 stays local if that $100 is spent in a national chain store.

If you spend it online, you can pretty much kiss it goodbye, unless it's the website of a local store.

The math is simple: If 10,000 people in the area spend $50, that means $500,000 a month in sales for independent stores.

That would make a big difference for local retailers.

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) offers these tips for the holiday shopping season:

• Budget. Sit down and plan your holiday expenditures. Along with your list of gifts, include holiday cards, stamps, entertaining, and clothing. As you make purchases, keep a running total to make sure you do not spend more than you planned.

• Comparison shopping. Don't rely on ads that claim to offer the lowest prices. The BBB has conducted many secret shoppings on companies that make this claim and has determined they do not always have the lowest prices. It is almost impossible for a company to have the lowest price on every item, every day. That is why comparison shopping is an important key to finding the best value.

• Restocking fees. Many consumers are looking for big ticket items for holiday gifts. After doing some serious comparison pricing, ask the store if they charge a restocking fee if the product is returned. Many stores find it necessary to charge these fees to cover the loss of revenue if they can no longer sell the item as new.

• Return policies and refunds. Ask for the store's return policy before you buy. Companies are not required to give you your money back, but they need to post their return policy prominently near the cashier. Save your receipts in one place so you don't lose them. Many companies are tightening their return policies and will most likely require you to produce a receipt for a return. Ask for a gift receipt and tape it on the inside of the gift box to make returns easier for family and friends.

• Gift cards. The BBB reminds consumers that if you purchase a gift card directly from stores or restaurants this holiday season, it should not have an expiration date and there should be no dormancy fees. However, if you purchase gift cards through your credit card company, those gift cards may be subject to dormancy fees. If you receive a gift card, you should redeem it promptly if possible.

• Getting the real deal. Do you know if a sale is really a sale? Many times companies boast "70 percent off," but 70 percent off what? If a company is advertising a "Going Out of Business" sale, don't assume they are offering the best price in town. Check the price on the same items at other stores.

• Check out the company. If you are shopping at a company for the first time, take a minute to contact the BBB at 1-800-646-6222 or visit to obtain a report.