With December starting tomorrow (eep!) and Christmas just around the corner, it's time that I came through on my promise of a bargain shopping post. George and I love shopping for Christmas gifts. He likes to buy something just right (i.e. expensive) and I like to buy for everyone... you can see how this would quickly become a problem. One of the hardest parts of our financial journey has been to convince ourselves that good gifts should be thoughtful, not perfect.
The last two years we have successfully given ourselves a per-person spending limit. We decide together who we're buying for (8 people this year, excluding ourselves), what our total budget is, and divide, leaving a little margin for error. Since we're a military family, the rest of our families live hundreds of miles away, so that limit includes everything: the item, taxes, & shipping. You don't pay taxes and shipping with Monopoly money!
I'm still choosing gifts for everyone this year, but while I'm doing that, I'm using some basic techniques and tricks to stretch our budget as far as possible. Here's what I've come up:
- Shop Online - In my world, online beats in line any day. Internet sites can be a great way to compare prices, look at reviews, and avoid buying related to social pressure ("I came in so I should buy something to make the trip worth it..."). I recently posted about how I saved 66% on some books that I ordered; 2/3 of that discount came just from shopping online instead of in stores. Some people enjoy the "thrill" of shopping in a store, but I always feel stressed when I shop. Thus, the lack of instant gratification is great for me (i.e. I can't buy to make myself feel better because I don't feel bad in the first place). I can sit back, make a calm decision, and either buy (cheaply!) or walk away with no problem. *See my note at the bottom for info about paying online.
- Comparison Shop - This is the #1 rule of bargain hunting (#2 is probably Never Pay Sticker Price). Search for the lowest price, keeping in mind extraneous costs like shipping. This is about an information imbalance: if only the seller knows the cost, you lose. If you comparison shop, you are correcting that imbalance in your favor.
- Coupons - Coupons aren't just for grocery shopping! They can save you hundreds when used properly. Sign up for your favorite stores' emails (see the email section below) and you'll get coupon codes for online shopping as well as in-store discounts. There are a number of sites that collect coupon codes (my favorite is RetailMeNot and there are others), but you can just Google "(store name) coupon" to find them, as well. There are also online sites that have deep discounts advertised for local activities or one day deals: Groupon is the most famous, but again, sites like this are growing in number.
- Cash Back Programs - This is as close to free money as you're going to get. There are two ways to get cash back on purchases and yes, they can be used together! The first method is the "old fashioned" way - that is, rewards cards, which can be used in stores or online. Every credit or debit card we have is linked to some type of rewards program. (As a personal note, I think if your bank or card company doesn't offer a rewards program for free, it's time to swap banks... yours isn't working enough for you!) Some of these give you a percentage back, either on your statement or in the form of a check, and some earn you points towards gift cards. The second method takes advantage of the advertising arrangements between online retailers. It involves signing up on a website (generally with just an email address and name) and then using that website to link to wherever you're shopping online. My preferred site is Ebates but there are several other reputable sites out there (and again, it pays to compare!). This article from Living with Less has a great overview of available sites and how to use them.
- Discounted Gift Cards - Still going to the store to buy gift cards? Think again. Sites like Plastic Jungle buy gift cards that people don't want at a discount from the face value (another money source if you have these laying around) and then sells them to people for a slightly lower discount. There are many sites like that, so I use Gift Card Granny to find them. This can be a great way to save big right up front. Standard discounts generally run from 5-15%, but I have seen much bigger numbers. You can use this two ways: to get gift cards as gifts for others at a discount or for yourself to use to purchase gifts. Combined with a coupon, this can add up to a very big discount.
I would be remiss if, along with those methods listed above, I didn't mention a couple of things that I do to make my very busy life a little less stressful.
- Email Address for Advertisements & Orders - I have a separate email address for all websites. Every coupon site, every store, every newsletter goes to that address. It's easy to get a free email address these days; I recommend gmail because of their phenomenal spam detection and organizational tools. I opened that address thinking that stores were selling my email address and I didn't want to wade through spam or advertisements not targeted at me. In fact, it has been a great organizational tool because all of my coupons and ads go to that account and all of my online order info is there as well. And I have to say, having had the address for the better part of a year, not a single spam item has been found... not by the spam filter and not by me in the inbox. Which should tell you something about those forwards your friends and family send you...
- Security when Buying Online - Shopping online is easier and more secure than ever. Most companies have shipping date guarantees and tracking numbers; the information that you enter is fairly standardized (name, address, card #, etc.) so you can detect anomalies easily; you can use a payment service (like Paypal, although there are others) instead of your credit card if you prefer; and your Visa or MC is protected from fraud liability as long as you report it. Major credit card companies also offer an option to use a "dummy number" that they generate for your online purchases, which you can get through their websites when you log in to your account, as an extra layer of security. While you should be careful when shopping online, using a major credit card, looking for the https:// instead of http://, and being heads up about what information a company actually needs are good ways to ensure your information is being properly used.
I should quickly point out that I recommend doing all of this in addition to having a solid financial plan. If you can't afford it in the first place, no discount is going to make your situation better.
It's been a long post, but I know most of my friends are as bargain minded as I am, so I hope you found it interesting. There are lots of opportunities to spend less. Is there anything you do that gets you more for your money? Tips or techniques to use in combination with these?