Shopping online can feel like browsing through the biggest mall in the world, minus the elevator music, the scent of cinnamon buns, and miles of walking.
While the vastness of the internet means endless possibilities, the sheer scope can make it hard to know if you are choosing the best products at the best prices, even for someone who shops professionally, like I do.
I've been a penny pincher my whole life, but for the last 10 years, I've been able to turn my passion for smart shopping into a career. I started out writing budget-friendly content for a few sites and then served as the spokesperson for a coupon site for three years.
Since 2015, I've run my own consumer advice website, True Trae, and have shared shopping and money saving tips on "NBC Nightly News," CNBC, and "Good Morning America."
Over time I've found some great saving strategies, and I asked some of my fellow shopping experts to share their own secrets for finding the best deals online.
Recently, I ordered something for my daughter from an unfamiliar site and ended up donating over $50 of unwanted items because return postage to China would have cost more than the merchandise. This kind of mistake can happen to anyone.
If you are buying from an online retailer that is new to you, make it a habit to account for any additional shipping fees on top of the purchase price, and determine if the company charges any fees for returns, like a restocking or shipping fee before you check out, suggests Jeanette Pavini, author and a savings expert with Coupons.com.
"For example, you can get a PetSmart gift card for 11% off. This may not sound like a ton, but it's free money," she says. She also noted that it's important to use the cards right away rather than "have them end up being wasted money in your own wallet."
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"Retailers like Macy's offer an online price-adjustment policy as long as certain criteria are met," said Pavini. If an item you purchased drops in price, a retailer will often refund the difference. Bloomingdale's, Banana Republic, Gap, and Lowe's are among the companies that offer this service.
Criteria will vary from retailer to retailer, but it's typically based on when you purchased the item. Macy's, for example, will honor a price adjustment within 10 days, whereas Gap's policy is 14 days. It never hurts to ask when you check out.
Prices change frequently at big online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Wayfair. If you're not in a hurry, you can maximize savings by timing your purchase.
While you can manually check sites multiple times throughout the day, if you are short on time you can use sites like Slickdeals, which have deal alerts you can set up that will notify you when your item goes on sale.
If you're looking to quickly compare prices, I'm personally a fan of Popcart, Google Shopping, and PriceBlink. And consumer-savings expert Andrea Woroch recommends free plug-ins, and browser extensions like Cently, to make finding a valid coupon code less of a hassle.
"This browser tool does all the work of looking for available coupons, testing each one, and instantly applying the deal with the biggest discount to your order at checkout," Woroch says.
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Cash back platforms like CouponCabin and tools like Capital One Shopping pay you to make purchases through their websites, apps, and browser extensions. These programs "combine spending money with earning money by giving members a percentage of what they spend on qualifying purchases," says Cindy Glavin, a shopping expert and the founder of Coupons4CapeCod.
Your credit card may also offer cash back. An easy way to find out is to visit the website for your credit card and look for a benefits page, or Google the name of your credit card and "benefits."
Setting it and forgetting it may seem like a good option for items that you regularly purchase, but this could end up costing you, especially on Amazon. Conway suggests reviewing your Subscribe & Save items on Amazon before the cutoff date because prices fluctuate regularly.
"I have a subscription for a particular brand and flavor of sparkling water," she says. "In a month, it went from $12 to $23 a case." That kind of dynamic pricing can quickly bust your budget if you're not paying attention, so checking each month before your order is processed is a good practice.
When you're shopping "oftentimes, there are promos that you overlooked or a group discount, such as AARP, veterans, teachers, that can be applied," Pavini says.
Try using an online retailer's chat feature to see if there are any discounts you might be missing. The ability to chat should be clearly designated on each page of the site, but if not, look for customer service in the menu.
You can also potentially find discounts through your employer, organizations you belong to, or programs like AAA.
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Searching for a product on Amazon or Google nets lots of results, and items that are designated as "Sponsored" on Amazon or "Ads" on Google often get prime placement at the top of the page.
Even though they look almost identical to the other products, they are ads, Stark notes. These products could be excellent, but they could just as likely be subpar. "The best option: Skip the sponsored products and take a look at the listings that had to work to get where they are."
Whenever you shop online, make sure that you are using the card that earns you maximum rewards, whether that's points for future travel, cash back, or discounts on future online purchases.
I thought that I was doing well with a certain travel card, but after using GigaPoints to analyze my purchases, I learned that I could have earned triple the rewards in 2020 simply by using a different card.
You might think that it's not possible to save on luxury items, but Erik Budde, CEO of GigaPoints, disagrees. Depending on the retailer and the merchandise you're interested in, deals can often come in the form of a gift card to use down the road, or free companion products, he says.
These offers typically occur during the holiday season or when new product lines are about to launch. "Some high-end department stores, like Neiman Marcus, will give you a gift card if you spend at a certain threshold," Budde says. "And Apple has done this with the Apple Watch."
If you have your eye on a "luxury" item and you're not sure whether to buy it, ask yourself if it is something that can be an investment and last a long time, and whether it comes with those perks that Budde describes. It could be a good deal. As "Rich Habits" author Tom Corley recently wrote for Grow, "frugal spending means buying the highest-quality product or service at the lowest price."
Trae Bodge is an accomplished lifestyle journalist and TV commentator who specializes in personal finance, saving money, and shopping smart. Trae has been named a Top Voice in Retail by LinkedIn and a top personal finance expert by GoBankingRates and FlexJobs. Her work has been featured in Newsweek, Woman's Day, Forbes, USNews.com, Kiplinger, MarketWatch, Yahoo Finance, and she has also appeared on Good Morning America's "GMA3: What You Need to Know," "NBC Nightly News," and "Inside Edition," You can find her money-saving tips at truetrae.com and at @truetrae on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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