Get a Great Deal on Anything
Save money on gas, cars, clothes, videos, shoes, textbooks, and more. Here’s our guide to the best bargains on earth.
By Andrea Cooper. Additional reporting by Tara Conry, Ann DiCesare, and Kathryn M. Tyranski
The Best Secrets
You’re paying for something online-a shirt, suit, or scarf-and notice a place to key in a code for a discount. But what are these secret codes, and where can you find them?
They’re at retailme not.com, and it takes almost no time or effort to search-alphabetically or by category or store (there are over 15,000 stores listed). The site offers codes for home products, sporting goods, luggage, food, and even Halloween costumes.
We found codes to get $10 off a $100 order at homedepot.com, 15 percent off purchases at the sporting-goods store modells.com, and $20 off a two-night stay booked through hotels.com. Before you pay for an item you want on a site, check retailmenot.com first to see if there’s a code. The discount codes work for online sales only, but the site has a thriving printable coupons section.
Codes come and go, often timed to the season. Some offers have fine print that excludes certain brands. Also check out currentcodes.com (stores are listed alphabetically), keycode.com (for the latest offers, sign up for RSS feeds), and rather-be-shopping.com (the site updates coupon codes daily).
At fatwallet.com, you buy and it pays you back-no joke. This site gets a commission for steering you to participating retailers, and it shares a portion of that commission with you in the form of cash back.
Recent rebates included 2.5 percent from toolking.com, 5 percent from fabric.com, and 7 percent from gardeners.com. To get your rebate, sign on to FatWallet, go to its Cash Back & Coupons page, then select a store. Click on the store’s link and complete your purchase in the window that opens.
The downside: Cash back, yes. Miracles, no. The site doesn’t take your rebate off at check-out. It’s a rebate, so it can take three weeks to post the cash in your FatWallet account and up to 120 days for FatWallet to cough up the dough via check or PayPal. Still, it is free money.
Dealcatcher.com is a good resource for coupons, rebates, and Sunday newspaper circulars listing weekly deals. The printable coupons don’t require special software (some sites do). A recent check found a coupon for $10 off a $60 purchase at the athletic shoe store finishline.com and a printable coupon for 25 percent off a pair of jeans at Gap. You can also compare prices here. We searched for the 1.7-ounce bottle of Vera Wang’s Princess fragrance and found the lowest price ($43.95) through DealCatcher, versus $55 at sephora.com and nordstrom.com. The Canon PowerShot SD790 IS ten-megapixel digital camera was $299.99 at bestbuy.com. But DealCatcher found it at dell.com for $243 (including free shipping).
If you’re short on time and want to do a quick price comparison, use "shopping bots" like pricegrabber.com. It won’t catch every deal-it can miss low prices on some less technologically advanced sites-but it does give a good overview. Check several different ones (shopping.com, mysimon.com, shopping.yahoo.com), and remember to sort by price.
At PriceGrabber, search by products, retailers, individual sellers, prices, or ratings. You’ll find just about everything here-sporting goods, auto parts, furniture, musical instruments, toys, video games, and electronics. The site’s bottom-line-price tool shows how much your product will cost at the various sites with the shipping included. Even if you don’t end up buying something online, you’ll know what’s a bargain. For one popular GPS system, we saw prices from 41 sellers ranging from $348.85 (yes!) to $749.95 (are you kidding?).
Buy at the right time
A department store will usually mark down merchandise five to eight weeks after an item has been put on the floor. "If it’s been an exceptionally warm winter," says Kathryn Finney, author of How to Be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less, "coats will go on sale earlier." The best day to shop in most stores is Thursday, especially late in the day, because they’ll start marking down for the weekend. For the best online deals, shop from Tuesday to Thursday.
"A lot of people don’t realize you can negotiate when shopping in stores," Finney says. If a shirt is missing a button, ask the floor manager for a discount. She usually has the discretion to give you up to 15 percent off.
Opt for excess
Overstock.com partners with name brands to sell its excess inventory of clothes, jewelry, and many other goods at discounted prices. There was a sharp Bill Blass men’s silk sport coat here for $99.99 (it retailed elsewhere for $295) and a Nine West women’s two-piece suit in red for $39.99 (it was $240). At $2.95, shipping is a bargain and applies to most orders in the continental U.S. If you find a better price elsewhere, overstock.com will give you a credit of up to $500 as part of its Best Price Guarantee, but there’s a long list of conditions to qualify.
Shopzilla.com and nextag.com are two especially comprehensive comparison-shopping sites. Enter your search term at Shopzilla (say, Hannah Montana T-shirts) or start off in one of eight well-defined categories. Shopzilla will list the least expensive sources for those tops in an organized format (they ranged in price from $5 to $30). A North Face boys’ Denali jacket was a low $59 at mountaingear.com and a high $99 at peterglenn.com. Worried about purchasing from lesser-known stores? Don’t be. Shopzilla rates featured sites on several factors, including on-time delivery and customer support, plus it gives you the scoop on who offers free shipping and clearance deals. And these sites aren’t just about clothes-you’ll find fresh flowers, computers, and washing machines too. Look at your search results carefully, though. A search for a Tiffany heart tag bracelet turned up sites that sold Tiffany "style" or "inspired" bracelets, not the real thing. An added value: At nextag.com, you can view the price history for various items.
The selection at zappos.com is superb. Men’s loafers, cowboy boots, eco-friendly sandals, couture high heels-whatever you want is probably here. Prices are great, shipping and returns are free, and you can return your purchase up to a year after you bought it, if it’s unworn and in the original box. One customer took maximum advantage of this policy by ordering 13 pairs of dressy shoes in her size for a wedding. The shoes arrived on time. She tried them all on, modeled them for the family, and chose one pair for the big event. The rest she returned to her local UPS store with a prepaid shipping label from Zappos.
We found holabirdsports.com to have the best prices and selection. Our site-by-site comparison search for a New Balance men’s sneaker (MR805BR) revealed a $20 range in prices, but holabirdsports.com came in first at $69.95, with free ground shipping. (By the way, holabirdsports.com rarely shows up on shopping-bot searches.)
Parents have swapped clothes and gear informally for years. Now they have a formal network for doing it at freepeats.org, which gives access to baby, kid, and maternity finds in 25 cities for a onetime charge of $4.95.
New cars – Buy at the end of the month
That’s when dealers need to fill their quotas. Or better still, at the end of each quarter (March, June, September, December), says Gary Foreman of thedollarstretcher.com. Tell them you’ve secured financing elsewhere. They’ll counteroffer, and you’ll go with the best deal.
New cars – Do your homework
Turn to the classic site kbb.com (Kelley Blue Book) to research makes and models. Cars.com will send your request to dealers for competitive quotes. A quick check on a 2008 Acura TL found 393 vehicles in a 30-mile radius of one New York zip code. Anyone flexible on options could save as much as $7,500.
New cars – Determine the real cost to own
Know the cost to run a vehicle over five to eight years, says Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor and auto specialist for Consumer Reports. We used the True Cost to Own tool at edmunds.com to compare the Honda Odyssey LX and the Nissan Quest. Factoring in depreciation, insurance, interest payments, fuel, and repairs, the Odyssey cost 55 cents a mile to operate, or $41,091 over five years. The Quest cost 60 cents a mile, or $45,303. You’d save about four grand even though the Honda cost $220 more.
Used cars – Look for older models
Depreciation hits hardest the first three years of ownership. Shop late November through December, when used-car lots are less busy. And do your research. The toughest negotiators are selling used cars, says Philip Reed, edmunds.com senior consumer advice editor.
Find inexpensive gas in your area by checking several sites — gasbuddy.com, autos.msn.com, gaspricewatch.com, and gasprices.mapquest.com. Many are community-driven sites, some more comprehensive than others. And remember, it’s probably not worth driving 15 minutes out of your way to save 10 cents a gallon. Here’s Gary Foreman’s rule: "Unless you’ll save more than a nickel a gallon and will be buying ten or more gallons, it’s best to buy the cheapest gas you find along your usual commute."
Save money by purchasing your tires online. The Goodyear Assurance TripleTred tire (size P205/60HR16) is $141.99 per tire at Sears (add $15 for installation). It’s $109 at discounttire.com, $102 at tirerack.com, and $95 at discounttires.com. Some sites require store pickup; others deliver. Even adding shipping and installation costs (about $30 per tire), you’ll save up to 17 percent.
Get rewarded for shopping
Indexcredit cards.com compares credit card features and rewards. Browse through 1,224 offers and choose the benefits you want. You’ll find low-interest cards, student credit cards, bad-credit cards, prepaid credit cards, frequent-flier cards, and cash-back-for-gas cards. With the Chase Freedom credit card, earn 3 percent cash back on purchases in the three categories you spend the most on each month-for your family, that might be groceries, gas, and fast food. Racing enthusiasts may go for the NASCAR RacePoints Visa so they can earn points toward experiences-driving on the track or playing crew chief for a day. Indexcreditcards.com has the most comprehensive listing, but also check cardratings.com for consumer and staff reviews and advocacy information. Creditcards.com features a good side-by-side comparison chart.
Save, and save for college
Shop with a Upromise-branded credit card at hundreds of participating dealers and you’ll be doubly rewarded: 1 percent cash back on all purchases, plus rebates on specific products and services. (Register the credit and debit cards you already have and get cash back, too, at participating companies.) Once you’ve set up your account at upromise.com, for instance, you can earn 3 percent cash back at jcpenney.com and Eddie Bauer and 5 percent at Avis. You can designate that the money be deposited automatically into your child’s 529 state-sponsored college savings plan. Babymint.com is similar, so check the lists of retailers to determine which site works best with your current shopping habits. There’s no fee for either.
Compare insurance quotes
Insweb.com is a good resource for obtaining quotes-on life, health, auto, and other types of insurance-from 6,400 agents representing 21 companies. You’ll have to scroll through several screens, answering questions (the kind an insurance agent would ask), then you’ll receive an e-mail with your quotes. A single 25-year-old woman in San Francisco, for example, is currently paying $1,771 a year for auto insurance. The lowest quote on insweb.com was $1,124, a savings of $647. Many factors- your health, your driving record, the location of your home-determine the actual cost of an insurance policy. As a result, quotes can vary widely.
Watch free videos
You may not need that Netflix subscription for $16.99 a month if your local library has a good DVD collection. And hulu.com has free full-length movies-including Liar Liar, Sideways, and Jerry Maguire-to watch on your computer whenever you like. There are hundreds of videos from 56 studios and networks, including Fox Movie Channel, NBC Universal, National Geographic, and the Sundance Channel. Catch a variety of primetime TV shows, too (and not all of them from NBC, which co-owns Hulu), including The Office, In Plain Sight, The Colbert Report, and Family Guy.
Need a trombone, power saw, or bow and arrows? Rent an amazing assortment of stuff-you name it, it’s available-from individuals at zilok.com, which covers 50 cities in 17 states. Type in what you’re looking for, where you live, and how long you’ll need it, then make arrangements with the owner for pickup. Mason Carroll, a software professional in San Francisco, rented a kayak for $40 a day. He enjoyed paddling around Shasta Lake for far less than if he’d purchased the same kayak for $350. You can rent your stuff to others too. Both parties sign a contract detailing their agreement, but there is the possibility your renter might damage or disappear with your item.
Theater on a budget
Broadwaybox.com is your best bet for scoring discounted tickets-up to 50 percent off-to some of the hottest shows on- and off-Broadway. You’ll get discount access codes to dozens of shows. Front mezzanine tickets to August: Osage County go for $102.50, but they’re a low $69.50 here. Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy is $66.50, a $30 savings. Select your dates and seat preferences, and note any expiration or blackout dates. To pay, click or call. (If you stop by the theater, you’ll save the service fee charged by Ticketmaster and Telecharge.) Just remember to mention the code. This site is free (some sites charge for codes). In-demand shows, like Spamalot and Jersey Boys, often don’t discount.
Redbox.com offers recent releases-such as The Bucket List, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Juno-for just $1. There are more than 9,000 of the distinctive red kiosks in 48 states, mostly in supermarkets and McDonald’s restaurants. Use the website to find them in your zip code. Best day to go? Tuesday-it’s new-release day. You can reserve your title in advance via the website. Or try the lazy way: Next time you’re at the grocery store, choose a movie from the available titles, watch it that night, and return it the next day for $1 plus tax.
Take free courses
Prestigious universities-including MIT (ocw.mit.edu) and the University of California, Berkeley (webcast.berkeley.edu/courses.php)-offer online courses in everything from art to astrophysics. They don’t count toward a degree, and you may need an iPod, Media Player software, or assigned texts to participate fully.
Learn a language
The BBC offers free lessons in seven languages-French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, and Chinese-at bbc.co.uk/languages. If your tastes run to more exotic tongues, go to freelanguage.org, and you’ll be directed to sites to learn everything from Afrikaans to Luxembourgish. And it’s all free.
Textbooks for less
You can save some serious money by buying used books, renting them, or downloading freebies. The publisher’s price for the ninth edition of Organic Chemistry, by T. W. Graham Solomons, is $192.95. Buy it new at textbookx.com for $187.50 or used through its Marketplace for as low as $75.99. At chegg.com, it’s $59.16 to rent for a semester. Booksprice.com factors in the shipping costs for the bottom line at a glance. Download more than 25,000 free electronic books at Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org). You won’t find new titles here, only books that have expired copyrights. The list is strong on classic literature and history, but it’s not the place to go for math or science texts.
Books (paperbackswap.com), CDs (swapacd.com), and DVDs (swapadvd.com), that is. The tagline says it all: "No risk. No spam. No advertising. No gimmicks. No gotchas. No kidding." The sender pays the shipping costs and can send by any method he chooses. "I’ve gotten rid of an entire bookcase this way and then refilled it with books that I really wanted," says Kelly Neylan, owner of an apparel business in Columbia, Maryland. The book site recently listed more than 439,000 titles and is updated every five minutes. Barbara Walters’s memoir, Audition, and Scott McClellan’s What Happened were there, as well as fiction by Dean Koontz, Lee Child, and Danielle Steel. The swapping currency is simple: One book, CD, or DVD equals one credit, but you’ll have to list ten items before you earn any credits. If you don’t see what you’re looking for here, try swaptree.com (you’ll find video games too) and bookmooch.com (you can donate your points to sick or low-income kids).