For people who meticulously organize and catalog their receipts, returning merchandise is no problem. But for the rest of us, it's a huge pain in the pocketbook.

Luckily, there's no reason to fret over past purchases. Just because you can't find your receipt — or your Aunt Cathy didn't include one with the cheetah-print sweater she bought you for Christmas — it doesn't mean you're stuck with your shoddy merchandise or unwanted gifts for the rest of your life.


Expert shopper and extreme couponer Kathy Spencer knows her way around a retail outlet, and she's agreed to share some of her secrets with disappointed giftees.

"Most stores accept returns without receipts," says Spencer, the author of "How to Shop for Free." "Depending on which store the item is from will determine how easy — or not so easy — this task will be."

That being said, Spencer suggests you first research a store's return policy on their official website before attempting to return an item. "If the policy isn’t written in your favor, give the store a call before heading out. Always be polite and courteous and ask if exceptions are ever made," she says. If you get a more favorable answer over the phone, Spencer then recommends you take down the name and title of the employee you spoke with. When you finally get to the store, you'll be "armed with all the information you need to get things done smoothly," Spencer says.

It's also important to maintain your polite disposition once you arrive at the store. "Sometimes, common courtesy can get the stores to pull a few strings for you," Spencer notes, even adding that it never hurts to try smooth-talking the clerks at the customer service department. Other times, "saying the product didn’t live up to the quality you expected from that store is all you need to say," Spencer explains.


If you're still having trouble, Spencer's next step is to talk to a manager and ask for an exception. "Any time I don’t get the answer I wanted from the service desk, I kindly say, 'I understand that this is all you can do, and I appreciate your efforts, but can I please speak to the store manager?' You can also call the corporate office [from a phone at the store] … and that usually does the trick," she says. "Corporate doesn't want an unhappy customer hanging around the service desk, and will usually 'make an exception this one time.'"

However, Spencer warns that certain stores are only willing to refund you in the form of store credit. "It all depends on the store," Spencer reiterates. "Some stores do not require a receipt for any return, and they will simply provide you with cash back if that's what you want," she says, adding that "other stores will happily offer you a credit without a receipt."

Some retailers, however, won't take back an item without a receipt no matter what. But luckily, Spencer says those places are in the minority.

Furthermore, a shopper shouldn't expect any of these retailers to accept a credit card or bank statement in lieu of a receipt. "A credit card statement shows you made a purchase at the store, but it may not show what exactly you bought," explains Spencer.

Spencer's last tip is to return your purchases as soon as possible — and especially before it goes on sale. "Most stores [only] take back merchandise without a receipt for store credit at the last sale price," says Spencer, explaining that sneaky shoppers might buy sale items during Black Friday doorbusters and try to return them later, without a receipt, for their full prices. "So if you see the item is going on sale … you will want to get to the store now and get the higher value."


But above all, be kind, courteous and earnest. "Most stores in this economy want your business and want to keep the customer happy so they come back," says Spencer, adding that a store would rather keep a loyal shopper than deny one measly return.

Next time, though, it's probably a good idea to ask Aunt Cathy for those receipts.