Online shoppers intent on getting the lowest price may want to make themselves comfortable: Shopping around is easier than ever, but it still takes some patience, and a visit to more than a few sites.
Price-comparison sites have long been consumers' go-to resource for checking prices online, and related apps have made it easy for pavement pounders to perform a quick buy-or-not calculation while in stores. Some 55% of online shoppers always check for competitive prices before buying, according to Forrester Research. And when shoppers are buying a big-ticket item or something that has a reputation for variable pricing, they're even more apt to compare, says Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It's a way to arm yourself with the most data possible," she says.
But experts say price-comparison engines have slowly become less useful for bargain hunters. Google recently redesigned its Google Shopping engine to include listings only from companies that pay to be included. On the plus side, that is likely to weed out suspect vendors and outdated prices. But it also means small businesses are less likely to get a mention, says Jack Vonder Heide, chief executive of research group Technology Briefing Centers. Nor will they see listings from Amazon -- the retail giant has removed its Google Shopping listings. A Google spokeswoman says the changes are about providing more accurate results for shoppers. "We truly believe that when merchants have a financial stake in the shopping experience, they will send us better product data," she says. And Google isn't alone. Other engines may also stick to paid listings, says Vonder Heide, or only include major retailers.
Then there's the dynamic-pricing problem. Web retailers like Amazon and Best Buy have begun changing their prices multiple times throughout the course of the day. Many of the price comparison sites, however, update their own records just once a day so the prices they're showing you are wrong, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. "Yesterday's price won't do you any good," he says.
Shoppers' best bet is to have not just one, but several price-comparison sites bookmarked, experts say. Ideally, that results in a wider selection of retailers and a more complete view of sales and price variations, Mulpuru says.
Here are five that the experts say are worth bookmarking:
If you're browsing models before hunting down the best prices, Bing offers a "compare" feature and virtual shopping lists that can be helpful in making a decision, says Michelle Madhok, chief executive of shopping site SheFinds.com. Price-check results include a price history over six months, and reviews and specs on the product when applicable. But there's no rating system for merchant reliability, and the listings aren't always accurate. A hunt for the novel "Gone Girl," brought up a cheap price, but it was from an expired auction, while a search for the Canon PowerShot D20 delivered a lowest listing of $247, but clicking on the link led to a U.K.-based site that actually wanted 247, or $397. A Bing spokeswoman says a site team approves merchants before adding the free product listings and offers guidelines to merchants to make listings more accurate.
One of the better sites at capturing price fluctuations, Decide.com compares price data against factors like a new model's launch date to help shoppers decide whether to buy or wait, says Mulpuru. Ratings also point out when consumers can "do better" -- that is, when there are comparable items with more favorable reviews and similar pricing. There's no way to sort listings by best total price with tax and shipping, however, so it can take time to review. Users can't search for everything, either. Decide.com currently covers a few dozen items within broader categories such as electronics and appliances. A spokesman says the site, which debuted last year, continues to add new categories and capabilities.
Even with the changes, it's still a more-than-worthy engine, says Vonder Heide. "You're going to have the safest buying experience," he says. The recent redesign also included larger images with search listings, so it's easier to see at a glance if those are say, the model of Ray Ban sunglasses you want. Listings show which local stores list an item in stock, as well as those that accept Google Wallet mobile payments. Web options often include eBay stores and current auction listings (used condition noted). But of course, with the shift to only paid listings, shoppers won't see as wide a selection of businesses as in the past, he says. A Google spokeswoman says the redesign will still list products by relevancy, regardless of what advertisers pay to be listed. Nonpaying merchants will also continue to be included in the listings for a short time, she says.
A price history tracks the average and lowest prices over time, and shoppers can also set price alerts to get an email when the item drops below a set dollar amount. Listings include big retailers as well as eBay sales and smaller specialty stores. Results initially separate merchants into "featured sellers" (those that paid) and "more sellers" (that didn't), but it takes just one click to sort by total price and mix the two together into one list. A spokesman says that functionality makes it clear for consumers that some retailers have paid to be featured, without compromising their ability to find the best deal. But finding some good deals requires a look through the whole list -- on a Whirlpool dishwasher, one of the lowest prices got pushed to the bottom of the page because shipping and tax couldn't be calculated. Those instances are rare, and usually stem from incomplete data passed from a retailer, says a spokesman.
Users can refine product searches by category to weed out unwanted items, like the accessories for a particular smartphone instead of the handset itself, says Madhok. Search results also allow winnowing by category-specific attributes like the color of a digital camera, or liquid versus cream foundation in makeup. There's a page of details on each merchant, including which credit cards they accept and where they charge sales tax, but there are no reliability ratings. Most listings do not note shipping price, either, except when it's free. Pronto.com did not respond to requests for comment.
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29. Impulse Buys
Who doesn't know that impulse purchases are a bad idea? I've even realized it was a bad idea as I was doing it. So here are three quick tips: <strong>1. Make a shopping list.</strong> Take it with you and stick to it. <strong>2. Eat beforehand.</strong> An empty stomach can doom the most prepared shopper, especially at the supermarket. <strong>3. Shop alone.</strong> Bringing children (or a significant other who acts like a child) is a sure way to fill your cart with impulse buys.
28. Buying Online Without Comparison Shopping
When you shop online, there are hundreds of sites competing for your business. Buy those shoes at the first site you go to and you may be wasting money. Compare the purchase and shipping price at three or more sites before you buy anything.
27. Paying For Protection You Don't Need
While you need to protect some things in your life - like your car or your house - you don't need to insure everything. Check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/06/04/9-types-of-protection-not-worth-paying-for/" target="_hplink">8 Types of Protection Not Worth Paying For</a> and see what you can live without.
26. Being Disorganized
Being disorganized about your finances leads to costly late payment fees and overdraft charges. You can easily rack up hundreds in fees. For example, even a single $25 late fee per month will cost $300 extra a year. Set up bill reminders and keep your checkbook balanced.
25. Expensive Cell Phone Plans
<a href="http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/shopping/ways-to-save-on/cell-phone-bills/overview/cell-phone-bills.htm" target="_hplink">Consumer Reports</a> says the average person spends $600 a year on wireless service. But many people pay for services they never use. For example, I had an $85 unlimited plan and rarely used more than 1,000 minutes a month. So I switched to a cheaper 1,000-minute plan and saved $20 a month.
24. Not Using Coupons
Now that coupons are available online, you're wasting money if you're not using them. Do a quick coupon search before you buy anything, including clothes, groceries, and electronics. You can find coupons on our <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/deals/" target="_hplink">deals</a> page or on sites like: <a href="http://www.retailmenot.com/" target="_hplink">RetailMeNot</a>, <a href="http://www.redplum.com/" target="_hplink">Redplum</a>, and <a href="http://smartsource.com/smartsource/index.jsp?Link=MKRU3JAAR6CCY" target="_hplink">SmartSource.com</a>.
23. Oil Changes
Cars don't need oil changes as frequently as they used to. If you're getting your oil changed every 3,000 miles, you're probably doing it too often (and wasting money). Follow the recommended mileage in your owner's manual.
22. Premium Fuel
Unless your car requires premium fuel, you don't need it. Buying premium isn't going to extend the life of your car or give you a significant MPG boost. In fact, Edmunds studied cars built from 2008 to 2012 and found that many models didn't even need premium fuel - even though the manufacturer recommended it. Here's what they had to say about it: <blockquote>In today's automobiles, advances in engine technology mean that even if the owner's manual recommends premium gasoline, the car will typically run on regular without knocking. Its performance will suffer only slightly: Perhaps it might be a half-second slower from zero to 60 mph. The key for drivers is to know whether premium gasoline is merely recommended or if it's required.</blockquote> Edmunds has a list of cars that need premium fuel (and a list of those that don't) in <a href="http://www.edmunds.com/fuel-economy/to-save-money-on-gas-stop-buying-premium.html" target="_hplink">To Save Money on Gas, Stop Buying Premium.</a>
21. Not Taking Advantage Of A 401(K) Company Match
Many companies will match an employee's 401(k) contribution up to a certain percent. If you're not contributing enough to meet the maximum match, you're losing out on free money. Ask your HR department for information on your company match.
20. Bill Pay Convenience Fees
Some online or over-the-phone bill payment services come with fees. For example, my electric company charges $2.95 to pay online through their website. Instead, I use free bill pay through my bank. I still get to pay online, but I skip the fee and save $35.40 a year.
19. Hotel Fees
In many hotels, you'll pay automatic fees on top of your room price. Just paying those fees without finding an alternative (or fighting them) is a waste of money. Check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/05/30/7-tips-to-beat-hotel-fees/" target="_hplink">7 Tips to Beat Hotel Fees.</a>
18. Paying For Services You Don't Use
Automatic withdrawals make us lazy with our money. If you're paying for something each month - like a gym membership, magazine subscription, or streaming service - make sure you use it, or those charges will add up to wasted cash. For example, here are mine:<br> 1. Gym membership - $29.99 per month<br> 2. Netflix subscription - $9.99 per month<br> 3. Popular Mechanics subscription - $1 per month<br> That's more than $40 a month. I make sure I get my money's worth out of them.
17. Ignoring Your Insurance
Becoming complacent about your insurance can cost you money. Stacy recommends shopping around for new insurance once a year - because when premiums drop or new, cheaper policies are available, no one's going to tell you if you don't ask. Check out our insurance comparison tool to shop for a better rate.
16. Wasting Utilities
Growing up, I got several lectures on leaving the lights on or keeping the front door open and "air conditioning the entire neighborhood." I didn't care too much then because I didn't pay the bill, but now I'm strict with my electricity usage. The result: My summer utility bills rarely top $100. If you've got lights on in a room you're not sitting in, you're wasting money.
15. Dining Out
I like to have a nice meal out every once in a while, but I've wasted a ton of money eating fast food I didn't really want because I didn't plan ahead. If I hit the drive-thru twice a week, I spend $12 on average. That is $48 a month - or enough for a really nice meal I actually wanted.<br> In <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/04/30/30-tips-to-save-on-food/" target="_hplink">30 Tips to Save Money on Food</a>, I've got a few ideas that will keep you out of the drive-thru lane - like keeping snacks on hand, freezing your leftovers to eat later, and planning your trips to the grocery store so that you always have something at home to eat. Check it out.
14. Morning Lattes
In my area, a Grande Caramel Macchiato costs $4.55. Buy one every weekday and you'll spend $22.75 a week, $91 a month, and $1,092 a year. By comparison, a 16 ounce bag of coffee costs me $5.99 and I can make about 82 cups per bag. That is 7 cents per cup, a savings of $4.48 a day. Make your coffee at home and skip the fancy coffee-house drinks.
13. Buying Software
Many popular software programs have free alternatives that are just as good as the paid versions. For example, the free <a href="http://www.openoffice.org/" target="_hplink">OpenOffice</a> suite includes word processing software. <a href="http://pixlr.com/" target="_hplink">Pixlr</a> offers free online photo editing with both vintage effects and a basic editor. For more advanced editing, use free software like <a href="http://www.gimp.org/" target="_hplink">Gimp.</a>
12. Long-Distance Calls
Most wireless plans include free long distance. If you call during off-peak hours, you won't use your minutes, either. You can also make long-distance calls over your Internet connection with <a href="http://www.skype.com/intl/en-us/home" target="_hplink">Skype </a>and <a href="https://www.google.com/voice/b/0/?setup=1#setup/" target="_hplink">Google Voice</a> - both services offer free state-to-state calls. International calls cost 2 to 15 cents per minute through Google Voice. Check out their rate plans <a href="https://www.google.com/voice/b/0/rates" target="_hplink">here</a>. Skype ranges from 2 to 23 cents per minute. Check out Skype's rate plans <a href="http://www.skype.com/intl/en-us/prices/payg-rates/#cc=MX" target="_hplink">here.</a>
11. Baggage On Airlines
You'll pay up to $35 to check your luggage when you fly. Some airlines - like JetBlue and Southwest - don't charge extra for baggage, but most do. Check Airfarewatchdog's <a href="http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/blog/3801089/airline-baggage-fees-chart-updated/" target="_hplink">Airline Baggage Fees Chart </a>before you book. If you're getting charged, only bring a carry-on (they're free) or find a better airline.
10. Full-Priced College Degrees
Between 2009 and 2010, full-time students spent an average of $17,464 on tuition, room, and board, according to the <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76" target="_hplink">National Center for Education Statistics.</a> But you can get a college degree cheaper (or even free) with scholarships. There are thousands out there. Check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/04/20/5-ways-to-win-more-scholarship-money/" target="_hplink">5 Ways to Score Scholarship Money.</a>
9. Credit Reports
By law, the three major credit bureaus have to give you a free copy of your credit report once per year. Don't buy one until you've used up your freebies at <a href="https://www.annualcreditreport.com/cra/index.jsp" target="_hplink">AnnualCreditReport.com.</a><br> Once you order your free credit reports, dispute any errors you find with the credit bureaus. Errors lower your credit score, and a lower credit score means higher <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/rates/" target="_hplink">interest rates</a> and wasted money. Check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/05/28/18-tips-to-give-your-credit-score-a-boost/" target="_hplink">18 Tips to Give Your Credit Score a Boost</a> for more ways to improve your score (and your interest rate).
8. Buying Books
I'm an avid reader, but I haven't paid the suggested price in years. There are plenty of free or cheaper options for getting new books: <br> 1. Get them from the library for free.<br> 2. Use a book-swapping service to trade books you no longer want for ones you do. Check out the <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2011/12/13/the-4-best-sites-for-trading-in-your-old-books/" target="_hplink">4 Best Sites for Trading in Your Old Books.</a><br> 3. Scour garage sales for books. I've bought many hardcovers for $1 this way. Check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/03/05/10-ways-to-save-time-and-money-at-garage-sales/" target="_hplink">10 Ways to Save Time and Money at Garage Sales</a> for shopping tips.
7. Brand Names
Some brand names are worth paying a little more for, but in many cases, the cheaper generics are the same quality as the brand names. For example, basic food stocks like rice, sugar, flour, and butter taste the same no matter what the label says. And generic over-the-counter meds? They work just as well as the name brands. Check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2010/09/09/7-things-you-should-always-buy-generic/" target="_hplink">7 Things You Should Always Buy Generic </a>before you buy anything else with a brand name.
6. 411 Calls
Use the search feature on your smartphone - connect to a WiFi network and you won't use your data - or dial <a href="http://www.free411.com/" target="_hplink">free 411</a> (1-800-Free411.) The results are sponsored by companies, and you'll have to listen to a 10-second ad, but it's free.
5. ATM Fees
My bank charged a $2.50 "convenience fee" for using an ATM that's not in its network. Convenient for who? I didn't live by a branch, so I was paying around $130 a year to use my own money. I changed banks, and now I use an app - <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/atm-hunter/id309754128?mt=8" target="_hplink">ATM Hunter</a> - to find a branch ATM.
4. Credit Card Interest
If you're not paying your credit card balance off in full each month, you're wasting money on interest. If you carry a $1,000 balance on a card that charges 18 percent, you'll waste $180 every year just on interest. If you can't pay off your credit card, check out our <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/credit-cards/" target="_hplink">credit card comparison tool</a> and look for a card with a lower interest rate. Also look for money-saving <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2012/06/06/credit-card-debt-zero-balance-transfers-can-help/" target="_hplink">zero-percent transfer offers.</a>
3. Bottled Water
A 16-ounce bottle of water costs about $1.50 at my local gas station. Buy a bottle of water five days a week, and you'll spend $30 a month and $360 a year. While it's not really free, water from your tap is much cheaper. If you hate the taste - and I do - you can buy a water-filtration system for as little as $20. Check out Consumer Reports' <a href="http://www.greenerchoices.org/products.cfm?product=waterfilter" target="_hplink">Water filters: green buying guide 2/12.</a>
2. Checking Accounts
Big banks charge an average of $110 a year for checking accounts if customers don't meet their minimum requirements, <a href="http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2012/03/08/top-7-ways-to-avoid-checking-account-fees" target="_hplink">U.S. News & World Report </a>recently revealed. Your options? <br> Move your money to a community bank that will offer better terms, or head to a credit union. The National Credit Union Administration has a<a href="http://www.ncua.gov/NCUAMapping/Pages/NCUAGOVMapping.aspx" target="_hplink"> Credit Union Locator</a> tool to help you find one in your area. <br> For those comfortable enough with the tech, consider going to an online-only bank. Without the overhead of brick-and-mortar branches, the terms are often much better. Consumerism Commentary offers two lists that are a great starting point: <a href="http://www.consumerismcommentary.com/the-best-online-checking-accounts/" target="_hplink">The Best Online Checking Accounts, June 2012</a> and The Best Online Savings Accounts, June 2012.
1. Cable TV
The average cost of cable is about $100 a month right now. And it's still rising. A recent study by consumer research firm<a href="https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/pressreleases/pr_120410#.T9Ogto7j9yE" target="_hplink"> NPD Group</a> says it "expects the average pay-TV bill to reach $123 by the year 2015 and $200 by 2020." I canceled my cable about six months ago and haven't looked back. I keep up on the TV shows I like with <a href="https://signup.netflix.com/" target="_hplink">Netflix </a>($9.99 per month for streaming) and Hulu (free for basic, $7.99 per month for extended). Many networks also stream their shows on their websites. For example: <a href="http://abc.go.com/watch" target="_hplink">ABC</a>, <a href="http://www.nbc.com/video/library/full-episodes/" target="_hplink">NBC</a>, <a href="http://www.cwtv.com/cw-video/" target="_hplink">The CW</a> and <a href="http://www.comedycentral.com/" target="_hplink">Comedy Central</a>. To learn even more, check out <a href="http://www.moneytalksnews.com/2010/06/30/you-dont-have-to-pay-for-cable-tv/" target="_hplink">You Don't Have to Pay for Cable TV.</a>