Simple Ways to Save While Shopping

I confess: I don’t like to shop. But I also don’t like to overspend. So, when I do shop, I want the satisfaction of knowing I got a decent price without having to jump through a ton of hoops.

Of course, this week marks the beginning of the most important part of the year for retailers. They count on “the holiday season” for a huge percentage of their annual sales. So, they pull out all the stops to maximize our spending.

If we’re not intentional, we can help them at our family’s expense. According to a recent T. Rowe Price survey of parents, 64% said they spent more on the holidays last year than they should have spent, 58% said they never stick to their holiday budget (and that’s among people who have a holiday budget!), and 53% said they try to get everything on their kids’ lists no matter how much it costs.

We can all do better than that.

Pre-season prep

In our household, we’ve already taken two steps to keep our Christmas spending under control. First, a few years ago, we split our gift budget into two categories: a monthly gift budget (for birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) and an annual Christmas gift budget. Every month, we put one-twelfth of our annual Christmas gift budget into a dedicated savings account.

The second step is we try to buy some Christmas gifts throughout the year when we find especially good deals. For example, we bought our daughter her primary Christmas gift last spring at a silent auction.

But now, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday staring us in the face, and with Christmas less than five weeks away, it’s a shopper’s equivalent of the two-minute drill in football. The game can be won or lost in these final weeks. We can either have a financially reasonable Christmas. Or we can overdo it and find ourselves in January regretting that we overspent.

Here are the tools we’re using to stay on budget.

Deal sites vs. price comparison sites

I don’t like deal sites—the ones that feature the best prices on whatever they happen to find. Scrolling through lots of deals on things that are not on my list is a bad use of time and, I strongly suspect, makes people spend more than they would otherwise (“Gee, I hadn’t thought of buying a panini grill, but look at that great price!”). Always remember, a deal isn’t a deal unless you’re saving money on something you were going to buy anyway.

I do, however, like price comparison sites. Maybe it’s a guy- or a temperament-thing, but I like to know what I’m after, quickly find the best price, buy it, and move on with my day.

I’ve tested numerous sites that claim to help you do that, only to be frustrated by the results my searches returned. For example, one item on my list this year is the entry-level GoPro camera—the GoPro Hero Session.

After entering that simple three-word search term in numerous price comparison sites, I was shown GoPro accessories, more expensive GoPro cameras, and then finally, the camera I was looking for—but at full retail price. How do these price comparison sites stay in business?

Finally, I found a site that works well: Yes, it’ll show you all sorts of meaningless deals. Just ignore those and type in the item you’re looking for.

More than a week before Black Friday, I entered my three-word search term and the site showed me six retailers offering the exact camera I was looking for at a $20 discount and bundled with about $70 worth of extras. Even better, one of the retailers was also including a $20 gift card. Perfect.

Take advantage of price matching

Never has it been so easy to be in a store, quickly find out if other stores are offering the same item you’re looking at for a better price, and then, best of all, get that better price from the store you’re already in. Price matching policies have become common.

I was in Target recently with two of our kids who wanted to split the cost of a new video game. After finding the game they were after, I used my phone to type its name into Google and quickly discovered that Walmart was selling the same item for $10 less. We took the game over to Target’s customer service area where they scanned the barcode, asked me for the name of the retailer with the better price, confirmed the better price, and honored the deal.

Of course, you can save a step (the part where you type in the name of the item) by using a barcode scanning app. After testing several, the one that worked best for me was Buy Via.

Know your plastic perks

While some personal finance teachers dogmatically declare that no one should ever own a credit card, I’m not one of them. If used responsibly, credit cards can provide some great benefits.

For example, my go-to card extends the manufacturer’s warranty on items I buy with the card by another two years. In addition, it provides price protection. After buying something with the card, if I find it for less within 60 days, the card will reimburse the difference up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year.

So, those are a few ways we try to shop responsibly. What about you? What tools or techniques help you shop smart?

If you haven’t done so already, why not subscribe to this blog? Twice a week, you’ll receive ideas and encouragement for using money well.

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