Even before the COVID-19 pandemic clobbered our economy, many Americans were struggling to make ends meet. And now, more than ever, it’s important to know all the tricks to avoid creeping costs. Start with this rule: Never pay retail.
These savvy tactics help you make every penny count. A dollar you don’t spend on needs or wants 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 cash-back shopping site
Sites like Rakuten and TopCashback typically 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, so you get a rebate of from 1% to 30% on what you spend through their sites. Swagbucks Shop, which offers shoppers several ways to save, has a cash-back option, too.
How it works: On a cash-back site, type in the name of a retailer, click through to the site and sign up. You’ll typically need to accumulate a minimum amount in rebates ($25, say) before you can cash them in.
After finding the best price and accessing it through a cash-back site, you can add yet another layer of savings if you …
2. Use a rewards credit card
Why would you not pay with a rewards card? It’s free money — or hotel or airline points. If you handle the card wisely, the benefits are potentially great.
There are two reasons not to use a rewards card:
- You tend to carry a card balance. In that case, your priority is finding a card with the lowest interest rate possible.
- The card has an annual fee. You don’t want to spend more on fees than you’ll reap in rewards although, in some cases, the rewards are enough that it’s worth paying to own the card.
As always, use credit cards wisely: Pay off your entire account balance each month. Otherwise, interest rates can eat up any benefit and can throw you into debt.
Money Talks News’ credit card finder helps you choose a card that’s right for your personal circumstances.
3. Pay with discounted gift cards
You’ll find tons of gift card resellers offering to buy cards consumers don’t want or can’t afford to keep.
How do you save money using gift cards, you ask? Here’s how: Buy gift cards at a discount from these resellers and then use them to do your shopping. Suppose you’ll be shopping at Target, for instance. Buy discounted Target cards to use at the store, effectively saving 2% to 20% or more on your purchases.
A couple of sources for discounted cards:
- Aggregator sites like Raise, which point you to good deals. Also at Raise, you can sell gift cards you aren’t using.
- Multipacks of discounted gift cards, found at warehouse stores like Costco (membership required).
4. Use shopping tools
Shopping apps are another path to savings. Ibotta’s mobile (Android or Apple) app offers rebates for purchases. Use it while shopping to:
- Upload receipts.
- Link your store loyalty cards for automatic tracking.
- Amass points for gift cards and cash (through Venmo or PayPal).
5. Look for coupons
Coupons can save you a bundle, both online and off. Find them through:
- Coupon websites: A few are 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. Watch for a shopper publication in your area.
- Valpak: You may receive the familiar blue envelope in the mail; if not, visit Valpak.com and insert your ZIP code.
- Social media: Follow your favorite retailers, and they’ll often mail you coupons regularly.
6. Be a preferred customer
Everyone’s a VIP these days. To claim your “special” status:
- Sign up for email lists with favorite companies. You’ll be notified of sales and may get one-time discount codes, too.
- Join the club. Establishments offering membership programs can include free products, discounts, birthday freebies and other goodies. When you check out at a store, ask if a rewards club exists.
- Sign up for a store loyalty card. These can earn discounts and possibly points for more savings.
- Rewards with every purchase. Some retailers go over and above, offering rewards with each purchase you make.
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.
7. Hit the dollar store
Certain items should never be purchased at a dollar store.
But if you follow these shopping secrets, dollar stores can have plenty of great deals on other things you need. (Really, how much do you want to pay for a mop bucket, greeting cards, reading glasses or other necessary or handy 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.
8. Buy secondhand
“Used” doesn’t have to mean “shoddy,” as our veteran thrift shopper explains, sharing his best tips.
At thrift stores and yard sales, you may even find clothing with department-store price tags still attached and unopened shrink-wrapped gift items.
Consignment stores are a happy medium between secondhand stores and retail stores. The managers at these places can be discriminating, so you’ll spend less (maybe a lot less) for new-looking goods.
A few more possibilities for pre-owned goods:
- Craigslist.org is the grandaddy of local secondhand sales sites. Letgo and its affiliate OfferUp are newer additions to this rich world of previously-used items.
- Facebook has local sales pages: Type in your city or ZIP code and search terms like “yard sale” or “garage sale.”
- The Freecycle Network has thousands of chapters in the United States with goods people offer 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 things you want.
9. Use social buying sites
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 can be downright startling, and they offer a cheaper introduction to fun activities like ceramic painting, laser tag or bowling.
Pro tip: For even more savings, access Groupon and Living Social through a cash-back shopping site. Go to Rakuten and others mentioned above and type in “Groupon” or “Living Social” in the search box to enhance your savings.
10. Buy in bulk
You don’t have to join a warehouse club to pay less by purchasing in bulk. Other places for bulk pricing:
- 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 for spices, rolled oats, cornmeal and other bulk goods at substantial discounts.
- “Ethnic” markets often feature larger-sized options, especially for staples like rice and beans.