False Economy: Think You’re Saving Money? Think Again

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You assume you’re being a savvy consumer by doing things like using coupons, getting free shipping with online purchases, and shopping in stores with no-hassle return policies. But are you really being taken for a sucker?

There are plenty of programs and promotions out there that claim to save you money. However, retailers don’t come up with these promotions to save you money. They come up with them to make profits. The game comes down to who is playing who.

You can save money through many of the programs and retailers below, but the trick is to make sure you’re working them, and not the other way around.

It’s great to get a discount on something you were going to buy anyway. But coupons are often used to entice folks into purchasing stuff that’s not normally on their shopping lists, and that they don’t really need—so if you buy, it’s a net loss, even if you’re buying at a discount. There’s an interesting discussion on whether coupons are a waste at FiveCentNickel.com. Most bargain hunters use them, but use them carefully, strategically. To use coupons wisely, you must be willing to jump from brand to brand and from store to store, and you must keep your eye on what you’re actually paying out of your pocket, rather than what you’re supposedly saving with some coupon. As one commenter said:

There is no point in saving $0.50 on a $4.00 bottle of salad dressing, when the one you normally purchase is $2.39.

Which brings up another point: Even if you have a coupon for a national brand product, a generic store brand equivalent might be cheaper, and tests have shown that store brands generally taste just as good or better.

0% Financing
Yes, you can get a deal with 0% financing—but only if you pay back the loan in its entirety before the 0% period runs out. As a Consumer Reports post said, retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart offer 0% financing for big purchases like flat-screen TVs, but once that no-interest period expires, you’re looking at interest rates of around 30%. Again, no harm done if you’re certain you can pay off the balance in the agreed-upon time frame. The problem is that many people are attracted to 0% financing because they don’t have the money to pay in full. They may think they’ll be able to cover the debt in the 6, 9, or 12 months detailed in the contract, but, especially because the economy’s been so dodgy, do they know for certain?

Stores That Are Always on Sale
At some stores, the discount hype never ends, and there’s always a readily available coupon to knock 20% off your purchase. Kohl’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond come to mind. The result of the non-stop sale-o-rama is that the retail price is pretty much meaningless. No one ever pays the list price (or at least no one ever should). The price after you’ve factored in the coupons and the never-ending discounts—that’s the true price. And often, it’s still not that great. The bottom line is, well, your bottom line. Don’t be bowled over by a flashy discount; look at what you’re paying, and see if you can get it cheaper at another store.

Stores With Good Return Policies
Of course, a good return policy is good for consumers. But the fact is that, per a WSJ story written to inform the business side of the equation:

… customers who know they can return anything they buy, no questions asked, for a full refund are likely to buy more than shoppers who are afraid they might get stuck with something they don’t want or lose money on the return. They’re also more likely to refer the retailer to other shoppers, broadening the company’s customer base.

Retail researchers study this stuff inside and out. They know, for instance, that there’s a lower likelihood of an item being returned if it was purchased at a discount, or that a customer who usually shops in the store will be less likely to return items purchased online.

I’m not saying to avoid shopping in stores with easy return policies. I’m saying that you should be mindful of the puppeteers who come up with these strategic return policies, and that you should only purchase the items you really want. And if you decide after the fact that you don’t want the item, by all means return it. A no-hassle return was one of the reasons you were shopping in the store in the first place.

Free Shipping
The issue here is similar to stores with no-hassle return policies: It’s commonplace to get duped into buying more than you normally would have. Many retailers have carefully-considered dollar minimums that a shopper must meet to get free shipping. So, even if you only wanted to buy one $12 item, you wind up spending $50—but with free shipping!

Studies have shown that consumers are far more likely to buy a $5 item that comes with free shipping than to buy the same item for $2.50 and pay $2.50 for shipping. Makes perfect sense, right? Don’t trick yourself into thinking you’re getting a deal, when what is really happening is that you’re spending more than you planned.

Extended Warranties
You pay more upfront with the idea that it’ll save you money down the line when the car or laptop or whatever breaks and needs to be fixed. The two big problems with extended warranties are that they are expensive (sometimes 30% or 40% of the cost of the item itself) and that consumers rarely ever use them (and stores make as much as 80% profit on extended service plans because of it). Net result: Very few consumers get their money’s worth out of extended warranty, even though they may think that buying them is the prudent thing to do.

Lessons on How to Save, Imported from China