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5 ways to shop smarter on Black Friday 2018

How to distinguish the hype from the deals as you bargain shop at Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, Target and beyond.

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Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty Images

The Black Friday machine is in full swing and it's hard to pick up the signals of a good deal through all the noise of the breathless hype. All over the biggest sites -- Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, just to name a few -- discounts shout at you in big, bold type. Here are five tips to help figure it all out.

Read more: When is Black Friday 2018?

If you happen to be new to these United States, a quick explanation: Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season. Today it's better known as the day retail stores try desperately to remind people there are still retail stores. 

As CNET's resident Cheapskate, it falls to me to give you a Black Friday primer, to share the secrets of this big day while simultaneously helping you avoid the hype. With that in mind, here are five things you should know about Black Friday/Cyber Monday.

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1. Every day is Black Friday

I've been writing the Cheapskate blog for 11 years this month, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that every day is Black Friday. Some recent examples: The second-gen Amazon Echo Dot for $23, a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus for $380, that crazy-popular Spider-Man game for PS4 for $42 or -- one of my recent favorites -- a mini DJI Mavic lookalike drone for $50. (Many of these have sold out or expired; I'm using them just to illustrate my point.)

Granted, Black Friday brings out a much larger volume of deals, but the deals themselves don't always beat what I share every day. And if they do, it's often by just a few dollars.

Bottom line: Try to avoid getting caught up in the Friday frenzy. If there's something you want to buy and you spot a great deal before BF, grab it. If you missed a great deal on BF, don't sweat it: Chances are good you'll see it again before long. Trust me on this; I speak from experience.

2. It pays to do your homework

Suppose you're in the market for a new TV. You've heard that Black Friday routinely brings good deals on them, which is true. So when the big day rolls around, how can you decide whether it'll be worth standing in line outside a big-box store at 4 a.m.?

Do your homework. And a great place to start is with price history site Camelcamelcamel, which shows you the highs and lows for just about every product Amazon sells. If you're looking for price-tracking data for other stores, I recommend browser plug-in Honey, which works with Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Walmart, among others. It also has a cashback component, a great way to save even more money on Black Friday (and every other day) -- see No. 5 below.

The more you know about a product's price history, the better prepared you'll be on Black Friday. (If, say, a sale-priced TV has had an even lower price in the past, chances are good it will again.) Just keep in mind that those histories don't always include refurbished items, which frequently prove to be even better deals. Speaking of which...

3. Don't overlook refurbs

Black Friday is almost always about new products. Not new to market, but new condition. And that tends to distract people from potentially better deals in the form of refurbished items.

Apple products are a great example. Black Friday is often the one day of the year when Apple itself discounts Macs, iPads and the like, though you'll often see particularly good deals from the likes of Best Buy and Walmart.

But even those deals don't often match up to what you can get on refurbished Apple stuff. I'm not saying you should always choose refurbished over new, merely that you shouldn't overlook the former when looking at discounts on the latter.

4. Seek out 'leaked' store ads

One reason I'm a little sour on Black Friday is it's no fun anymore. In recent years, pretty much every store (online and retail alike) has taken to "leaking" its Black Friday ad beforehand -- sometimes weeks before. For the bargain hunter, this is actually a good thing, as it helps you plan ahead and satisfies item No. 2, above. It just means that come Nov. 23 there won't be any surprises.

When you're ready to scope out the ads, head to sites like BFAds.net and BlackFriday.com. Just make sure not to get sucked in by the likes of Newegg's "Black November," which is little more than the company's usual batch of daily or weekly deals, or other stores' "one day only" sales occurring during the next several weeks. It's all hype, people! (See No. 1.)

5. Don't forget your cashback apps

Psst! There's a way to save even more on Black Friday (and Cyber Monday, and every other shopping day of the year): Use a cash-back service.

Read more: Cash-back services: Do they really work?

BeFrugal, Dosh, Ebates, Honey and TopCashback are just a few of the services that will score you extra discounts at many, if not most, stores -- mostly online stores, but some retails ones, too. Dosh in particular is good choice for the latter, but the Ebates mobile app also supports in-store shopping.

Read more: 4 ways to get cash back without even trying

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Originally published on Nov. 1, 2016.
Update, Sept. 4: Added new information for 2018.