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Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday: What's the difference?

One is all about retail stores, the other is all online -- right? Actually, there's more to it than that.

Looks like fun -- not.

Ron Pruitt/Demotix/Corbis

There are three American holidays in late November: Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

You know what Turkey Day's all about: turkey, duh. But what's the deal with BF and CM? They're just big sales that bookend the holiday weekend, right?

Actually, there's a bit more to the story.

Read more: How to save even more on Black Friday and Cyber Monday

When did Black Friday start?

Black Friday dates back to the early 1950s, when retail stores would kick off the Christmas shopping season with big sales. So big, in fact, that annual store profits would often tip into "the black" (meaning no longer "in the red," which is accounting parlance for losing money) once all the receipts were tallied.

Shoppers came in droves because the day after Thanksgiving was typically a day off, making it the perfect day to shop. In stores. Then the internet happened, and Black Friday quickly spread around the world.

This year, Black Friday is on Nov. 23, but deals can be found sooner than that. 

Read more: 5 things you need to know about Black Friday 2018

When did Cyber Monday start?

It's hard to believe, but Cyber Monday dates back to just 2005. Back then, before it was natural to order anything and everything online, shoppers still needed encouragement. Online stores began running their own big sales to compete with the brick-and-mortar juggernaut that was Black Friday.

Why "Cyber Monday"? Because in the old days, the internet was often referred to as "cyberspace." Quaint, no?

Why Monday and not Saturday? Because it turns out people like to shop while they're at the office, using fast computers and high-speed connections. (Remember, once upon a time, most people had only dial-up modems at home.) In the early days of online shopping, Monday proved a lucrative day for online stores -- so they embraced it.

Read more: 7 tips to score the best deals on Cyber Monday

Aren't they really the same thing?

Yes and no. Black Friday was born at retail; Cyber Monday was the online world's answer. So, in the beginning, you'd hit the stores on Friday, then hit cyberspace on Monday.

Now, Black Friday is as much an online event as it is a brick-and-mortar one -- arguably even more so. Although plenty of stores still run "doorbuster" sales that require shoppers to actually show up (check out this Kohl's ad from last year, for example), the online world has fully embraced Black Friday.

But it doesn't really go the other way: Brick-and-mortar sales typically run on Friday and that's it. Cyber Monday is almost exclusively an online "holiday."

Now playing: Watch this: Tricks to score extra savings on Black Friday and Cyber...

Which day has the better deals?

It depends on what you're looking for. The aforementioned doorbusters will typically exceed anything you'll find online, whether on Friday or Monday, because stores are willing to break even or even lose money on a product in order to get you in the door.

That said, modern shoppers tend to prefer online shopping, and while the deals themselves might not be quite as good on Cyber Monday as on Black Friday, the former tends to drive more actual revenue for sellers. In 2017, CM sales hit $6.6 billion in the US, a new record and nearly double the 2016 number. It also edged out BF's $5 billion, which was also a record.

What's more, doorbusters typically require standing in line, fighting crowds and a limited amount of inventory -- often for a comparatively modest savings. Something like an Amazon Echo Dot (normally $50) might be on sale for $30 in-store, which is a great deal, but if it's $35 online, are you really going to spend all that time and energy just to save $5?

So the "better" deal might be the one that requires a few clicks instead of a few hours, even if it means spending just a bit more.

What you should know about both days

Don't get caught up in the hype. Stores pull out all the stops to make you experience FOMO: fear of missing out. "Best prices of the year!" "This sale will not be repeated!"

Hogwash. I make my living as The Cheapskate, and I'm here to tell you that every day is Black Friday -- and Cyber Monday. There will be some solid deals this November, no doubt about it, but I see similar ones all year. Sometimes better ones.

Ultimately, before you buy anything, on any day, be sure to do your homework and make sure that bargain is really a bargain.

Originally published Oct. 30, 2017.
Update, Oct. 24, 2018: Updated for 2018 with latest figures.