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A woman shops at a store in a mall in Washington. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images/JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman shops at a store in a mall in Washington. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images/JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Personal Finance Tips

How to count your loonies when you cross-border shop Add to ...

Everybody loves a deal. And for Canadians just a stone’s throw from the border with the United States, it’s hard not to be lured by big sales and cheap prices.

For Lisa Forret, from Sharon, Ont., the love of the deal has led her to organize a once-a-year weekend bus trip getaway with 55 women from her circle of family and friends to shop, save, and shop some more.

“When they have a sale, they have a sale,” she says about American retailers.

This will be the ninth year of the bus trip, and Pennsylvania is a favourite destination because the state has no tax on clothing or shoes.

Ms. Forret’s trips across the border began just weeks after she had twin boys, who are now 21. She would buy wipes, diapers, clothes and toys. “Everything was just much cheaper,” she says.

It’s not surprising Canadians have been hopping over the border, given the relatively strong loonie and the backlash against American companies in Canada that are charging higher prices, such as J. Crew. And as we head into the holiday shopping season, there will be even more Canadians hunting for the deals that pop up on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, the Friday and Monday following the American Thanksgiving holiday.

But you need to plan your shopping excursion. Shoppers also have to factor in the cost of paying U.S. taxes, duty, travel costs and currency exchange fees.

“In order to get the best bang for your buck, research ahead of time is important, ” says Stephen Fine, founder and director of business development at crossbordershopping.ca, a website with an array of information, including key destinations and deals.

Figure out where you’re going, how to get there, research online for the best outlets or malls in the area you want to visit and look for sales and coupons in advance, Mr. Fine says. Here are some other tips to save more.

Choose what you buy carefully

Not all items offer the most savings, Mr. Fine says. Clothing, accessories and shoes offer the best deals, with savings regularly between 20 and 30 per cent, jumping up to 50 per cent if there’s a big sale. Electronics can be about 20 per cent cheaper, but “you really need to do your homework before you go,” he says. Grocery and pharmacy products usually cost less, but bigger items such as furniture and cars are more of a challenge. Furniture has shipping costs and there are lots of rules to follow if you want to import a car.

Look for sales and coupons

U.S. retailers often have big sales on holidays. You might get the best savings then, but it also might be busier and the border wait times can be lengthy, Mr. Fine says. Looking online for deals and sales and signing up to specific retailers for their coupons is well worth the time, Ms. Forret says. Before her trips she goes to websites with printable coupons that offer 20- or 30-per-cent discounts off your entire purchase price at specific retailers. “You print it off and away you go. They honour it,” she says.

Know your exemption limits

If you go across the border for the day your personal exemption limit is $50. After that, duties will apply. If you stay for 48 hours the limit is $400; stay for a week and it’s $750. There are also limits for alcohol and tobacco products. If you want to do a lot of shopping, “it definitely can be advantageous to make a trip of it,” Mr. Fine says. Stay under your limit if you can, recommends Ms. Forret. But if you go over, just pay the duty, she adds, since you’re probably still saving money.

Evaluate the cheapest way to pay

The loonie has boosted cross-border shopping as it hovers around parity with the U.S. dollar. But there are still costs associated with changing your loonies to greenbacks. If you change your cash at a bank or currency exchange kiosk here, the charge is about 3 to 4 per cent. You can take cash from an ATM in the U.S., but you’ll pay the exchange rate and likely a $2 to $4 fee. You’ll also pay the exchange rate if you use your Canadian dollar credit card. “For people who are more frequent cross-border shoppers … they should consider getting U.S. dollar bank accounts or U.S. dollar credit cards,” Mr. Fine says.

Consider shopping online

Many U.S. retailers make sure their online prices are enticing and often have online sales. But keep in mind you have to pay for your purchase to be shipped to Canada. “There can be exorbitant shipping prices from U.S. retailers,” Mr. Fine warns. You may also have to pay Canadian tax on the item and it could get held up at customs.

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