Even before the COVID-19 pandemic clobbered our economy, leading to millions of layoffs and financial uncertainty, many Americans were struggling to make ends meet. According to a report from the Center for Financial Services Innovation, “stagnant wages and increasing costs of housing, food and health care” were making it harder for consumers to keep up with their bills. Nearly half of Americans surveyed (46.5%) reported spending as much — or more — than they earned, the center’s 2019 Trends Report says.
Now more than ever, it’s important to know all the tricks to avoid creeping costs, especially this overarching rule: Never pay retail.
Make every penny count with these 11 savvy (and simple) tactics. A dollar you don’t spend on needs or wants is a dollar that can be working for you in an emergency fund, a health savings account, retirement savings or a college plan for your kid.
1. Use a price-comparison website
Before shopping online or in-store, visit a site like PriceGrabber. Type in what you’re looking for, and it’ll tell you if what you’re about to pay is the best price you can get.
Pro tip: Unless the company is paying for shipping, be sure to factor shipping into the “best” price you find.
Once you’ve determined the best deal, don’t go straight to the retailer! Instead …
2. Use a cash-back shopping site
Sites like Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates), TopCashback and Ibotta get a finder’s fee when they send shoppers to any of thousands of retailers with links on their portal. They split those fees with consumers, resulting in rebates to shoppers from 1% to 30% on what they spend. These sites also offer discount codes.
Here’s how it works: On a cash-back website, type in the name of a retailer and click through to their site (sign-up is required). You’ll typically need to accumulate a minimum amount in rebates ($25, say) before cashing them in.
After finding the best price and accessing it through a cash-back site, savvy consumers can add yet another layer of savings if they …
3. Use a rewards credit card
Cash back! Airline miles! Hotel points! Why would you not pay with a rewards card? It’s free money.
Unless, of course, there’s an annual fee. But it depends. In some cases, the rewards are great enough that it’s worth paying to own the card. But use it wisely: Unless you pay your account in full each month, interest rates could eat up any benefit from the rewards.
How to sort it all out? Money Talks News’ credit card finder helps you find a credit card that’s best for your personal circumstances.
4. Pay with discounted gift cards
You’ll find tons of gift card resellers out there, offering to buy cards that consumers don’t want or can’t afford to keep.
You can purchase gift cards at a discount from these resellers. Use them when shopping — for savings of 2% to 20% or more.
Purchase discounted cards from:
- Aggregator sites like Raise, which show you the best deals.
- Multipacks of discounted gift cards can be found at warehouse stores like Costco.
5. Use shopping tools
Shopping apps are another great path to savings. For instance, the Ibotta rebate app for Android or Apple lets you earn points from a slew of retailers. You can use it to:
- Upload receipts.
- Link your store loyalty cards for automatic tracking.
- Shop online the way you would a cash-back site.
- Amass points for gift cards and cold, hard cash (through Venmo or PayPal).
The much-hyped Wish app delivers prices that are so low they seem, well, impossible. It’s a legit site. But, as Lifewire notes, Wish doesn’t provide brand information or product specifics for items shown. It ships directly from overseas vendors. “In general,” Lifewire says, “you shouldn’t expect the same level of quality you’d get when paying top dollar.” That might be fine if all you want is trashable gym wear, but it may not be dependable when shopping for a Mother’s Day gift.
Tools such as Paribus look out for you after you’ve shopped. If a product’s price drops, the app requests rebates on your behalf.
Editor’s Note: Paribus compensates us when you sign up for Paribus using the links we provided.
6. Look for coupons
Coupons can save you a bundle, both online and off. Find them through:
- Coupon websites: There are plenty, including RetailMeNot, Savings.com and Coupons.com.
- Store websites: Download coupons to your store’s loyalty card.
- Regional publications: I look forward to my monthly local “Good Deals” magazine, with coupons for all kinds of stuff, from ice cream cones to bathtub restoration. Keep your eyes out for a shopper publication in your area.
- Valpak: Watch for the iconic blue envelope in the mail, or visit Valpak.com and plug in your ZIP code.
- Social media: Follow your favorite retailers, and they’ll often mail you coupons regularly.
7. Be a preferred customer
Everyone’s a VIP these days. To claim your “special” status:
- Sign up for email lists with your favorite companies. You’ll be notified of sales and may get one-time discount codes, too.
- Join the club. Establishments offering membership programs often include free products, discounts, birthday freebies and more. Always ask if a rewards club exists.
- Sign up for a store loyalty card. These can get you discounts, of course, and you may be able to accrue points for savings on purchases.
If you’re not a member of Costco, and have been wondering whether you should be, check out this special promotional offer for online signups.
8. Hit the dollar store
Certain items should never be purchased at a dollar store. However, these stores have plenty of great deals on other things you need. (Really, how much do you want to pay for a mop bucket? Or for greeting cards, reading glasses or a host of other dollar store items?)
Recently I helped my daughter clean and repaint her rental unit. The mop, sponges, cleanser, white vinegar and other supplies all came from a dollar store.
9. Use social buying sites
Electronic media keep changing how we shop and where we find deals.
Need the chimney swept or your windshield replaced? Can’t afford pricey restaurants? Social buying sites — Groupon and LivingSocial are two — offer discounted products, services, activities and even travel packages. The prices sometimes are downright startling and offer a less-costly way to try activities, such as ceramic painting, laser tag or the retro sport of bowling.
Pro tip: Access Groupon and Living Social through a cash-back shopping site for even more savings. Go to a cash-back site (like Rakuten and others mentioned above, also MrRebates or Dollar Dig) and type “Groupon” or “Living Social” in the site’s search box. Groupon and Living Social provide good deals on their own, but placing your order through a cash-back site enhances the deals. An example: Recently I saw a 90-minute massage (normally $130) at Groupon for $86. Looking to save still more, I went to MrRebates, clicked on “Groupon” and purchased the massage there, earning a $5.16 rebate that brought my massage price to $80.84.
10. Buy in bulk
You don’t have to join a warehouse club to pay less by purchasing in bulk. Here are other places to find bulk pricing:
- ShopRite supermarkets’ semi-annual “Can Can” sale features impressive discounts on items sold by the case. Look for similar sales in your area.
- Ask a supermarket manager if you can get a price break for buying an entire case of canned goods.
- Produce auctions are a great source of sometimes unbelievable deals. Search online for “produce auction near me.”
- Restaurant supply stores often are open to the public.
- Check prices in your supermarket’s natural foods section. I buy spices, rolled oats, cornmeal and other bulk goods at substantial discounts.
- “Ethnic” markets typically feature larger-sized options, especially for staples like rice and beans.
And of course, you’ll find discounts at Costco, Sam’s and BJ’s. See “10 Best Buys at Warehouse Clubs” for ways to use your memberships to the fullest.
11. Buy secondhand
“Used” doesn’t have to mean “shoddy.” I’ve seen clothing with department-store price tags attached and still-shrink-wrapped gift items at thrift stores and yard sales.
Consignment stores are a happy medium between secondhand stores and retail establishments. The managers at these places can be pretty discriminating, so you’ll spend less (maybe a lot less) for new-looking items.
A few more possibilities for pre-owned goods:
- Craigslist.org is the grandaddy of local secondhand sales sites. Letgo and OfferUp are newer additions to this rich world of previously-used items.
- Facebook has local sales pages: Type in your city and/or ZIP code and search terms like “yard sale” or “garage sale.”
- The Freecycle Network has over 5,300 chapters in the United States. Find goods that people are offering free of charge or post an “ask” for something you’re seeking.
- The Buy Nothing Project, a hyper-local version of Freecycle, is a nonprofit effort to get neighbors to give to neighbors. I’ve seen great stuff offered for free, and, as with Freecycle, you can ask for items you want.
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