When gas prices rose to more than $4 per gallon, it marked a tipping point for many people. Reality set in, and consumers of all income levels really started cutting back. Now, we're packing our lunches, carpooling to work and taking vacations closer to home. When we do need to spend — when the refrigerator is on the fritz, or the kids desperately need back-to-school clothes — we're looking for deals.
If anything positive has come from this struggling economy, it's that sales are really starting to heat up. These days, it's possible to get a discount on just about anything, as long as you know where to look. Your first stop should be the Internet.
The Web has long hosted comparison shopping sites that allow you to plug in the name of an item you're looking for to find out who's selling it at the best price. But don't stop there. Very often, you can get that price to drop even further by doing a little extra legwork. Here's how:
I've always been a fan of plugging the name of a store and the words "discount code" or "coupon code" into a search engine before I submit my order. Often, you can find coupons that shave 10 percent off your total, or even throw in free shipping. But with Web sites like bradsdeals.com and dealnews.com, you no longer have to put in the hard time to save. These sites, and many others, are continuously researching and publishing the best deals available on the Internet.
"I estimate that probably 90 percent of the stores at any given time have coupons available, so it's just a question of finding them," says Brad Wilson, founder of bradsdeals.com. Indeed, I was on Wilson's site for less than a minute before finding a coffeemaker I've been looking for, along with a coupon code for 20 percent off.
Many people are under the impression that they can't use a coupon on an item that's already on sale. But Daniel de Grandpre, founder of dealnews.com, says that's often not the case. "You can't usually double up on coupon codes, it's true, but you can typically stack them on top of a sale that's going on."
So if a retailer is having a storewide sale and you find a coupon code for 20 percent off a particular item, you may very well be able to take the discount off the already reduced price. At the very least, it doesn't hurt to try.
One general rule of thumb when shopping is that flexibility always works in your favor. I don't care if you're looking for a new television or a jar of peanut butter, if you're willing to consider another brand, you always have a leg up when it comes to getting a good price. This is particularly true when it comes to shopping online, because you can easily hop around from store to store in minutes, without wasting any gas.
If you're willing to wait to make your purchase, you can often do better. Let's say your computer died earlier this week. You can buy a replacement now, or you can hang in there for a couple of weeks until the back-to-school deals start rolling in. "If you're willing to hold off until the deal happens, you'll get much better savings. The more flexibility you have as a shopper, the more power you have," says de Grandpre.
Consider the unexpected
We all know we can easily find electronics, clothing and books online. But did you know you can turn to the Web for things like groceries and drugstore items? "You wouldn't expect Amazon, the bookseller, to have food, but they sell thousands and thousands of nonperishable items, and they're probably 20 to 30 percent cheaper than the grocery store on average," says Wilson.
The retailer also offers free shipping if you spend more than $25, an easy task when it comes to buying groceries these days. Keep in mind that you'll have to buy in bulk, so this is great for things like granola bars for the kids' lunches, but it might not be worth it for something you won't eat on a regular basis.
Drugstore.com, on the other hand, doesn't only sell in bulk, but, depending on what you buy, can be less expensive than your local pharmacy. The Web site offers free shipping on first orders more than $25, but even paying shipping in the future may be worth it if you find that the prices are less than those you're seeing on store shelves.
Get off the Web
Some people still don't like to buy online. Despite all the security measures in place, there's something about sending your credit card digits off into cyberspace that's unsettling. But that doesn't mean you should let these savings pass you by. "If you'd rather go to the store, print out the online offer and see if the store location will match it," advises de Grandpre. Very often, they will.
In fact, some stores even take it a step further. If you find a great deal on a store's Web site, and you don't have that particular chain in your area, take proof of the sale into a competitor's store. Larger stores frequently offer price matching, so be nice, ask to speak to a manager and see what he or she will do to help you out.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site,