If you have read my columns over the years, you probably know I absolutely love the Christmas season.

I love the family get togethers, the traditional food, the festive decorations, the Christmas music and the movies – even the cheesy made for TV variety. Perhaps it’s just me, but people seem a little happier and maybe even a touch kinder around the holidays, and there is something special about that, no matter what your religious beliefs are.

I also absolutely love a good deal, so it probably comes as no surprise that my second favorite day of the year (trailing only Christmas itself) has traditionally been the day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday for shoppers.

Back in the Stone Age – you know, a few years ago – the very best Black Friday sales were only available in the stores, frequently had limited supplies and often drove people to wait in line for hours to be the first in the doors when they opened at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. But for those dedicated (or perhaps crazy) enough to brave the crowds and the early hours there were in fact some amazing deals to be had.

I kind of miss those days.

Like everything else in life, technology has changed Black Friday and the holiday sale shopping season in general.

While there are still some holdout stores that have unbeatable in-store only deals on that Friday morning, more and more are available online and the best prices are no longer limited to Black Friday. In fact, many stores have started offering their “Black Friday pricing” during Thanksgiving day and the online sales stretch well beyond Cyber Monday.

With so many days of sales and so many ways to save, it is more important than ever to be organized and do your research if you want to make the most of them this year.

The most important thing I’ve learned in all of my years of Black Friday shopping is not to wing it. I never just show up and start browsing. I continue to go in with a very defined list of what I am looking for, even though my shopping now involves both online and in-store purchases.

Start by making a list of what you want to shop for. I use this time of year for more than just gift shopping. The sales can also provide a good opportunity to replace that washer/dryer that is just barely hanging on and replenish the AAA batteries the kids burn through so quickly.

Once your list is complete, your research can begin.

In order for you to know for sure you are getting a good deal, you need to know first what the normal price of the item is. It’s been proven that many stores artificially raise their prices prior to Thanksgiving just so that they can “slash” the price for the holiday sales. Make sure to know what the real normal prices of your items are upfront so you can know how much of a discount the sale is really offering.

Now that you have your list and know what you would normally pay, it’s time to start looking for the best deals. While some stores have similar sales to others, it definitely pays to compare.

You can wait for the Thanksgiving newspaper to pore over the sales flyers, but if you have a big list, I’d suggest getting a head start by checking out the ads in advance. Websites like blackfriday.com start sharing leaked versions of the ad flyers sometimes weeks in advance, and many of the big retailers like Walmart release their own ads in advance on their websites.

As you research the best deals be sure to keep good notes about when and where the items are available and what time the store opens. Note whether they be purchased online, whether shipping included, it the item is only available in the store and if there is a limited quantity,

Be sure to also check out the post-Black Friday sale flyers to see how the prices compare. You might find that the prices are the same or that the difference isn’t enough to warrant a trip to the store during the busiest hours.

Then map out your game plan. Consider laying out your shopping plan by day, being sure to separate what you can buy online from what you need to get at the store. And make sure to give yourself options for the bigger ticket items in case your first choice of store no longer has the item available.

When it comes time to shop, don’t forget to use coupons. A lot of stores don’t allow coupons in addition to the sale prices around Black Friday, but that isn’t always the case, so be sure to check.

Some websites like retailmenot.com share coupon codes that can be used online. And watch your email for personalized coupons and offers, as well.

As you anticipate the excitement of Christmas and the holiday sale season, start planning your shopping in advance to get the best deals – and have some fun along the way!

Trisha Arndt, CFP, is President of Wealth Strategies of Wisconsin Ltd, 951 Kimball Lane, Suite 110, Verona, WI 53593, 848-2400. Securities and Advisory Services offered through Commonwealth Financial Network, member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser.