I’m finished with my Christmas shopping. I have never been successful at wrapping up my gift shopping before Thanksgiving. You’ll understand why I might feel just a little smug, but this is also why this year’s Black Friday season feels a little anticlimactic. It’s not just my mad gift buying skills. Stores have been peddling holiday deals as early as late October.
Regardless of the time of year, I want to share a few thoughts on my buying process. Hopefully these strategies will help you get the best bang for your buck, and ideally, they will help keep more of those bucks in your savings account.
Do Your Research
Before you decide you need a thing, understand what you need the thing to do. It’s like the advice you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach lest you buy more than you intended. learn exactly what the thing does so that you aren’t sold an armload of features you won’t ever use.
In my opinion, technology is the easiest to research. Sites like The Verge, CNET, Ars Technica, and many others will give you a granular review of most technology. They’re the sort of sites I peruse when I’m contemplating a new laptop, smart phone, or tablet.
If I’m interested in a new kitchen gadget, I visit sites like Wired, Good Housekeeping, and Consumer Reports. I visit others, but these are the sites that typically surface when I run Google searches.
Researching clothing could be a little more difficult if you are not prone to researching fashion sites. I’m not fussed about wearing the latest trends, but I am interested in finding items that will endure for more than a few seasons. In doing so, I found myself an online girlfriend. That is to say, I found StyleGirlfriend. Sites like these are designed to help guys pick out good items. I’ve never used the service behind the site, but the site itself gives decent descriptions of items I might be interested in buying. Women, I am sure, have an even greater selection of sites devoted to their fashion needs.
The point here is to first familiarize yourself with a product category before you narrow your search down to a specific model. Later you’re going to want to browse customer reviews, but you should never allow other people’s opinions to influence your first impression. That’s why you would never just walk onto a car dealer’s lot without first researching the kind of features you want your vehicle to carry.
Set Thresholds with Your Partner
For those of you in serious long-term relationships where finances are intertwined, you would do well to agree on a threshold where talking to each other is part of the buying process. Perhaps you agree that anything under $50 does not require a conversation. The only exception to this agreement might be frequency. One or two expenses under this threshold a month might not leave a huge dent on your finances, but if you look through your credit card statement and see multiple charges, even if they fall below your threshold, it might be time for a different conversation.
The point of setting a threshold is not to ask permission. Asking permission and having a discussion are two separate things. You research first so that you can step into the discussion armed with knowledge about what the thing does and how it would benefit you. Don’t assume your partner will reject the idea. Your partner might be in a position to help you find a better or less expensive alternative. Also, you don’t want to run the risk of buying something your partner may have already gotten you as a surprise.
Finances are too often responsible for breakups. Don’t feed that statistic.
Be Cautious with Customer Reviews
Checking customer reviews is an important part of my buying process. There are sites, sites like Amazon, that have provided fertile breeding ground for fake reviews. There are services like Fakespot devoted to weeding out such fake reviews, but I have not always been so eager to add one more step to my process.
In general, these are some points I look for in a good customer review:
- Is the review lengthy enough to provide real substance?
- Is the review focusing on the product itself or some miscellaneous component like the shipping speed?
- Is a negative review based on a lemon, or is it part of an emerging trend?
- Is the review overly positive?
- Does the reviewer describe a use case scenario?
- Did the review attempt at providing a balanced perspective?
It might seem like a long checklist for one product. These points become second nature though. If you read enough customer reviews, you develop an adequate sense for what is authentic and what is fabricated.
Check Pricing History and Competing Vendors
I’ve been eyeing a certain audio mixer for a few months now. On Amazon it currently costs $279. I used Camel Camel Camel to get a feel for this mixer’s pricing history and learned the price has remained fairly consistent since the product was first available on Amazon in 2016. If I decide to pull the trigger, chances are good I will pay something in this neighborhood.
I next ran a search on eBay. The prices for this particular mixer were running even higher than what I had found on Amazon. eBay is a fair barometer for prices on technology, though this past summer I also used the site to get a sense for prices on full grain leather jackets.
If the product costs an obscene amount, a couple hundred dollars or more, I may also run a check on Google Shopping. That is a pretty quick way to see the price on any given item across stores in my area.
What’s the difference between this step and the research step? By the time you get here, you already know what you’re looking for. Some sites will show prices as part of their reviews, but in the first step, pricing likely took secondary importance to your desire to own the product. At this stage your sole focus is to find the best deal from the most reputable vendor.
Make a Little Extra Cash
The only thing better than finding a good discount is getting a little extra cash back on top of the discounted price. I’m currently using Retail Me Not, Rakuten, and Capital One Shopping. Each of these services feature a browser extension. When the service sees a potential coupon code, it alerts you and applies it for you at checkout.
Mind you, I don’t bank on these services. If they happen to pick up a coupon code, great, but I don’t go hunting for coupon codes all over creation. Besides, if the browser extensions work as well as they claim, they will automatically do the work for me. This year I have picked up coupon codes for Macy’s, Old Navy, Giant Food, and SiriusXM, among others. I’m not generating a fortune, but it’s extra money I did next to nothing to accumulate.
Here’s a good article that provides leads on other great services worth checking out.
Anyone who knows me well knows how much I obsess over major purchases. I spent almost three years on the fence before taking the plunge on a leather jacket. Now, obviously that’s a little extreme, but it’s not unusual for me to spend days, sometimes weeks, researching web host providers, audio interfaces, online file storage, tablets, Bluetooth keyboards, etc.
I’m not suggesting you have to become equally engrossed in the buying process. I am suggesting you take a few extra steps to inform yourself about what it is you are buying. Understand benefits versus features, and learn to walk away from a particular product if it will not meet your needs, or if it is more product than you will ever utilize. The extra hundred dollars you put down for features you will not need is a hundred dollars you could have put toward something more practical.
What are your thoughts? Sound off in the comments!