Shopping online can be a boon to your budget when you know where to look for the best deals and how to score deep discounts.
Bottom line: It’s all about taking the time to seek out discounts, and the time you spend on this aspect of online shopping will pay off in spades.
“If there’s one thing I like, it’s free money,” says Reyna Gobel, a savings and budgeting expert.
We asked Gobel and two other shopping experts to share their top money-saving secrets. If you use all six of these tactics, then consider yourself a smart online shopper.
1. You seek out coupons, codes and deals
This is the most important thing you can do to be a smart online shopper. According to computer expert Kim Komando, Americans who use coupons save more than $4 billion a year.
Search the biggies first: Browse popular coupon websites such as Coupons.com, RetailMeNot.com, and CouponCabin.com to find compiled lists of active codes and promotions. Or type a company or product name plus “coupon,” “promo” or “code” into your favorite search engine.
Deal watcher Julie Sturgeon, president of IndianapolisOnTheCheap.com, makes a point to check BradsDeals.com several times a week. Not every deal is a good fit, but “there are some real gems there,” she says.
Check the main LivingOnTheCheap.com site to locate your desired city’s OnTheCheap site. You’ll uncover local deals, discounts, freebies and other money-saving resources, Sturgeon says. Each OTC site is customized to fit the city’s culture and atmosphere.
Follow favorite products or merchants on social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, “a growing outlet for deals and promo codes,” says Firas Kittaneh, CEO and creative director of Amerisleep, an online-only mattress store based in Tempe, Arizona.
Use resources on the product or company website, too. Many retailer sites feature promo codes prominently, but if you can’t find one or the price isn’t right, “ask for a promo code through live chat or email,” Kittaneh suggests.
2. You compare and negotiate prices
Before you buy, check price comparison sites such as Shopzilla.com, Shopping.com and CamelCamelCamel.com. Even if you don’t buy from the seller with the lowest listed price, your research may help you bargain for a better deal from your preferred retailer.
People who negotiated or haggled—in a store or online—were successful in getting a better deal roughly three out of five times and saved about $80, according to Consumer Reports magazine.
“You’ve got to ask,” says Gobel, who is a student loan expert for wisebread.com and author of CliffsNotes Graduation Debt. Even when you shop at brick-and-mortar stores, take time to look up prices, coupons and offers on your mobile device before you head for the register. Merchants may honor online coupons for in-store purchases if you ask.
Retailers call it “showrooming” when shoppers physically go to a store to see, test or try on products and then buy that item online. “Some online companies like Amazon.com have launched apps that allow you to scan a barcode” on a product while you’re in a store and then buy it online, Kittaneh says.
Best Buy and Wal-Mart, for example, are trying to win back buyers with “reverse showrooming”: Online shoppers compare prices and buy from them, then pick up the merchandise at the store, Kittaneh says: “Either way, the customer wins.”
3. You read customer feedback
You want to buy a great, trouble-free product that won’t end up in unexpected repair or replacement costs. If you’re researching several models of the same kind of product—such as TVs, refrigerators, home furnishings, clothing and even vehicles—check the feedback that other buyers have posted. These people already have experience with the products you’re considering buying, and both positive and negative feedback can be helpful in your decision-making process.
Weigh online feedback with caution, however. “If customer comments are excessively positive” or there are few or no negative reviews, “there’s a strong possibility they’re fake,” Kittaneh says.
Even overly negative reviews can be biased or fake, too. Kittaneh recommends looking for reviews verified by trusted third-party websites or labels such as “verified buyer” to be sure the person who posted the feedback actually bought the product.
Some sites, such as Amazon.com, let you submit questions about products so that previous reviewers can respond. This is especially helpful when the product description isn’t thorough or if you have a follow-up regarding a reviewer’s comment.
4. You join loyalty programs
Many companies—retail stores, big box and discount stores, restaurants, grocers and more—offer special prices and perks to regular customers who join their rewards programs or loyalty clubs. These can include advance notice of sales, special coupon codes, exclusive deals and more. Ask if your favorite shops have a loyalty program.
Always check store and restaurant receipts to see if there’s a feedback code, and use them, Sturgeon urges. “I’ve racked up all kinds of coupons for free food by going online and rating my meal and service,” she says.
5. You sign up for emails announcing sales
Sign up for email lists that send news of savings and special offers directly to your inbox. Consider creating a separate email address solely for those messages to keep your primary mailbox clutter-free. Granted, that address may receive lots of mail, but it’s worth the time to check them at least every few days, Sturgeon says: “There’s gold in those messages!”
6. You pause before buying
Once you’ve found a great product at an unbeatable price, put it in your virtual shopping cart—but don’t click “buy” yet, Gobel says. Leave the item in your cart and check back to see if the retailer is offering an even better percentage-off deal later that day or in the next few days. If they do, you’ll save even more, she says. If they don’t, you’ve only lost a little time.