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Black Friday diehards will do just about anything for a bargain

Courtesy Melissa Rush

Melissa Rush, 24, far right, with her family outside an Old Navy on Black Friday in 2010 at 2 am.

You think you're going to get a deal this Black Friday? You'll have to get through the diehards first.

“Are you kidding?” Amanda Willis, 21, shouted into her phone, after secretly making it ring. “Yankee Candle is giving away those big candles for free for the next 10 minutes?!” Most of the hour-long line in front of her fled the J.Crew store at Jersey Shore Premium Outlets to dash over to the candle store. Willis checked out in 15 minutes. “I'm on a schedule,” the college senior and frugal fashion blogger told TODAY with a laugh mixed with both guilt and glee, recalling last year's ruse.

Related: 10 things not to buy on Black Friday

After waiting for 30 minutes for parking on Black Friday, a guy cut off Tyger Danger, 24, and stole her spot. “I threatened to key his car,” said the Orlando, Fla., public relations executive who flies home annually to shop Black Friday with her family. Since she was girl, her mother has bought her a new Christmas dress each year. “I find the day very stressful,” Danger told TODAY. “As I’ve grown older, I find myself staying away from large crowds, but my mother loves it. She loves the hustle and bustle. She loves the decorations, the energy and excitement."

Black Friday isn't what it used to be. There are cops now, organized lines, and claim tickets passed out for the door busters. They're necessary elements after a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death in 2008 by uncontrolled crowds. Retailers have gotten better at crafting and marketing stingier deals, too. The day doesn't even start on Friday anymore, with many stores this year opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

Much of the action and excitement is moving online as well. IBISWorld forecasts that 2012 Black Friday spending will be $12.2 billion, an increase of only .1 percent over last year. Meanwhile, Cyber Monday spending will jump 21.4 percent to $1.5 billion. For these true believers, however, Black Friday is as much for the savings as the thrill of snagging them.

Donning snow pants, a sweatshirt, coat, gloves and hat, Chace Cannon, 26, waited from 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. one year in front of a Salt Lake City, Utah, Target store. The temperature: 6 degrees. The prize: a-40 inch Westinghouse HDTV, half off, for $299. Once inside, he and friends loaded their carts up with eight TVs, the investment adviser told TODAY. Latecomers tried to pry the boxes out of their carts, so the gang retreated to a corner and circled the shopping carts until friends and family arrived.

If you're ready to begin the holiday shopping blitz, TODAY contributor Elizabeth Mayhew has tips on what to buy this month, including the best deals on electronics you'll find on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as well as low prices on cookware and kitchen appliances.

Louise Sattler, 53, admits to being strategically nice to others. After that people are much more willing to help you, the Los Angeles educational entrepreneur told TODAY, like holding your place if you need to go to the bathroom or letting your kid jump in the line with you. Her family, fluent in sign language, uses it to coordinate with each other inside loud stores. It's faster than texting.

If she can't find what she's looking for, she'll look them up on the Internet afterward or during Cyber Monday. “A lot of the same deals are online,” said Sattler, a bit ruefully.

Tips: How to not bust your budget over the holidays

However, clicking buttons at home doesn't have the same visceral thrill of snatching a prize in the shopping scrum.

There's this “adrenaline high of getting all these great sales,” Melissa Rush, 24, told TODAY. She went to her first Black Friday on a lark a few years ago. Then she found a pair of ballet-slipper style Crocs for $24. After that, the Seminole, Fla., 2nd grade teacher was “hooked.”

This year, her family is limiting everyone to bringing one dish for Thanksgiving. It'll give them more time for shopping.

Rush's goal is to buy a present for each of her 30 different family members. Using a spreadsheet on her phone synced with her computer, delegating tasks in-store to her shopping crew of 10 friends and family, and using a combination of coupons, price matching, and manufacturer's rebates, she aims to spend no more than $300 total, about $10 per person. She says it's key to compare the circulars from the week before with the Black Friday announcements to make sure the deals with the big red circles around them are actual savings. She also checks prices and reviews on Amazon.com before putting an item on the hit list.

Rush does what anyone else can do. She's just very dedicated about how she does it. Research ahead of time. Know what you want. Stick to your plan. Execute. Oh, and always make sure one person in your group gets into the checkout line right away when you enter the store while the others hunt for the goodies.

“At first people thought I was crazy,” when they heard how early she was getting up and how hardcore she took the whole process, she said. “Then they saw the receipt.”

When the economic crisis hit in late 2008, to stay in budget, Rush's large family had to change the holiday gift-giving tradition to White Elephant or Secret Santa parties, which make a game out of giving a limited number of presents. Now that she does Black Friday, she and her posse come home with SUV-loads full of presents, and everyone gets one. “Our smiles are as big as Christmas,” she said.

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