A true frugalist just hates to pay retail. Fortunately, that’s rarely necessary.
With just a handful of savings tactics, you can cut costs drastically on necessities and nice-to-haves alike. These are some pretty simple savings hacks, made easier by technology.
Try one (or all!) to make every dollar work for you – and work hard.
1. Combine sales with coupons.
One of the oldest frugal hacks in the book, this is simpler than it’s ever been thanks to coupon and deal sites like RetailMeNot, Savings.com and The Coupon Mom. Sure, some people still read store flyers, but shoppers are increasingly likely to look for the best deals online.
Sound like too much work? Search for “deals [name of store, name of your town]” and you’ll likely find that a regional deal/coupon blogger has done all the work for you.
The Coupon Mom offers state-by-state linking for sale/coupon/rebate deals at supermarkets, drugstores, and dollar stores. She provides links to downloadable coupons for these deals when available. These are extremely useful for getting needed products cheaply or free.
Once you’re in the habit of doing this, the next step is…
2. Combine discounts and gift cards.
A guy I know explained how his household frugal-hacks a seltzer habit. It’s a two-part process: buying the CO2 tank refills for their SodaStream setup at Bed Bath & Beyond with one of the company’s always-available coupons, and paying the balance with a discounted gift card. Depending on the reseller market, he can save anywhere from 8 to 15 percent on the gift cards.
This tactic obviously requires a little forethought, but not that much. You can set an alert for gift cards you like and use regularly, on top of any in-store savings or coupons. Pet food, movies, restaurants, flowers, sporting goods – you name it, and there’s likely a gift card out there. The aggregator site GiftCardGranny.com lets you compare savings among a slew of resellers.
Or cut out the middleman and buy your discounted cards at Costco. Riley Adams, who blogs at YoungAndTheInvested.com, gets AMC theater gift cards for 20 percent off at the warehouse club. He and his wife increase their savings by going to the $5 shows on Tuesday, and by paying with their Costco credit card, which gives them a 2 percent reward.
Speaking of which…
3. Combine discounts, gift cards, and other deals.
Recently I bought Cinemark movie gift cards (plus a couple other cards) from Raise.com. The gift card reseller had a higher-than-usual rate that day, plus a promo code for an additional discount.
It gets better. By accessing Raise.com through Mr. Rebates, I got a $10.89 refund, and I paid for the order with a rewards credit card. All told, I paid $33.01 for $50 worth of movie cards.
But Nikayala Sutherland gets bragging rights for this section, because she got Express to pay her to get a pair of $80 jeans. Here’s how that broke down:
Sutherland waited until the jeans were 40 percent off, and applied a “$15 off a purchase of $30 or more” coupon. Next, she installed the Express app and filled out a user profile, earning $10 in store credits.
Express gives a $20-off birthday credit, which Sutherland used. She paid with her Express Next credit card for an 8 percent cash-back bonus. Finally, she reviewed the jeans online, earning her a $5 credit. Ultimately, Express paid her a little over $3 to buy the jeans. “It’s the most financially savvy purchase I’ve ever made,” says Sutherland, of the Budgeting Couple blog.
Not all of us can pull off a shopping hack like that, but all of us should want to.
Although some personal finance pundits warn against getting store credit cards, they can sometimes make sense. In general, though, the best way to double-dip your savings is to…
4. Get a good all-purpose rewards credit card.
Find the plastic that best fits your personality. Do you travel often? Frequently eat out or order in? Buy a ton of groceries for your large family or your cooking and baking hobby? Does your long commute call for a lot of gasoline or public transit, or are you a city mouse who uses a lot of rideshare services? There’s a card that fits your needs and will reward you for purchases you’re already making, so go find it.
Today’s cards have perks that go beyond the “one dollar = one point” model. For example, Kristin Lee of the CentsandPurpose blog has a rewards credit card that offers 20-percent discounts on gift cards. She uses some of her rewards points to buy the cheaper scrip, waits for a needed item to go on sale, and purchases it through the Ebates cash-back site (usually with a coupon code) for a rebate.
5. Add some apps.
Shopping apps such as Ibotta, Receipt Hog, Drop, Fetch, and Earny hook you up with rebates, alert you to price drops, and let you earn points to be traded in for gift cards. A blogger named Kyle, of Millionaire Mob, writes of combining Ibotta, Drop, a Visa Local deal, and a special cash-back category from his rewards credit card to earn a 22-percent cash-back bonus plus Uber credits at Whole Foods.
While not everyone buys groceries at Whole Foods, shopping apps also work at drugstores, supermarkets, and department stores. The Target app is hugely popular, offering e-coupons that can be used alongside Target store coupons and manufacturers coupons. Tracie Forbes of Penny Pinchin Mom devoted an entire article to explaining how to optimize this tool.
6. Watch for specials offered by rewards credit cards.
Introductory offers can be tantalizing – a gazillion points if you spend $10,000 in the first three months! a quadrillion extra miles if you use the card to pay for hotel stays! – but be careful to read the fine print. If you’re dedicated to card “churning,” it doesn’t have to be a one-time deal, either: You can continue earning pretty great sign-up bonuses that you can apply to discounted gift cards (as Lee did, above), great travel, or even cash for a high-yield savings account.
However, failing to manage these offers carefully could “damage your credit score,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer. He explains the basics in this article on The Simple Dollar.
A much simpler route is to take advantage of special discounts offered by your credit card. For example, my Chase card offers 5 percent cash-back on different purchase categories every quarter. Right now one of them is “supermarkets,” so my partner has agreed to let me pay for all the groceries with that card. (We’ll settle up later.)
Or you could “manufacture points,” the way a blogger called Dr. McFrugal does. He buys gift cards for everyday needs (and wants) at Office Depot, because his Chase card gives him five times the points for office supply store purchases. This makes sense especially if “you have an immediate use for the gift cards.”
7. Join a store rewards program.
Supermarkets, drugstores, and other retailers have loyalty programs that give discounts and special deals to those who sign up. One of my favorites is Walgreens, whose Balance Rewards program points can be used like cash at checkout.
Recently I had fun with the Fred Meyer Rewards program. The store (part of the Kroger chain) offered four times the fuel reward points for gift card purchases. To treat a friend to lunch, I bought a $25 restaurant card and got 100 points towards my next gasoline purchase. And, of course, I paid with a rewards credit card.
If you’re going to buy these things anyway, go for it. Just don’t fall into the trap of buying something just to get the points. If you don’t need it, then it’s no bargain.
8. Get paid for online searches.
Join sites such as MyPoints, InboxDollars or Swagbucks. With MyPoints and Swagbucks you can cash in those points for gift cards, then use them combined with discounts as described above (or request PayPal and use it any way you want). InboxDollars pays out in cash.
Point being, if you’re online searching anyway, then ultimately you’ll be paid for it.
9. Hack your gift-giving.
- Give a discounted gift card outright. Logan Allec, who blogs at Money Done Right, chooses cards to wherever the engaged couple is registered. He follows the formula noted above: accessing discounted gift card sites through a cash-back shopping site and paying with a Citi Double Cash card, which gives 2 percent cash-back. He’s saved as much as 18 percent in these kinds of transactions.
- Buy with a shopping app. You might use that Target app to buy a birthday present. Or perhaps you’ll order a gift from Amazon, knowing that the Earny app will send you a refund if the price drops.
- Buy at a place that gives points. For example, you could load up on diapers at Walgreens for a baby shower gift.
- Play hard to get. That is, once you’ve found the gift item you want, put it in your online shopping cart and then log out. Within a couple of days you’re likely to get an e-mail from the merchant offering some kind of discount if you’ll complete the purchase.
Readers: What are your favorite ways to stack savings?
Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”
More by Donna Freedman:
- Eight Life Essentials You Can Get for Free
- Stop Wasting Food: Creative Ways to Use Every Bit You Buy
- Half-Price, Not Half-Baked: Save a Fortune at the Bakery Outlet
Nine Hacks to Double- or Triple-Dip Your Savings