Be a Guerilla Shopper and Save Money
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Be a Guerilla Shopper and Save Money

Stretching dollars? Puhleeze! These days it's about pinching pennies till they scream. Follow our expert advice and get everything you want and need with plenty of cash to spare.

Times are tough, so you've got to get even tougher when it comes to saving money on everything you buy. The savviest shoppers out there -- the woman in seat 11A who paid half what you did for seat 11B; the dude ahead of you at the grocery checkout nabbing a rib roast for the cost of a pound of ground beef -- aren't making those big scores by following the same old rules. Instead, they're using guerrilla tactics -- ambushing special offers, mowing down high prices, and unleashing WMDs (Ways of getting Major Discounts). And so can you! We asked stellar negotiators to share their smoothest moves. Their priceless secrets could save you thousands of dollars this year.

Department Store Discounts

Have you ever heard the saying "never pay retail"? Well, you shouldn't -- and you can play retail stores by beating them at their own game. Check out these winning strategies.

  • Buy store coupons on eBay. "People often resell coupons they've received from stores like Kohl's, Macy's, and J.C. Penney for a fraction of their dollar value," says Kathy Spencer, author of How to Shop for Free. "I'll buy stacks of them, then use them along with flyer coupons to multiply my savings."
  • Get carded. Store credit cards can be worth signing up for, especially if you pay your bills on time and in full every month and shop at the retailer frequently. You often get first dibs on sales and specials. Target's Redcard, for instance, saves you 5 percent on most purchases. Consumer expert Andrea Woroch likes the Banana Republic card. "You earn points you can use at all the company's stores -- Banana, Gap, Old Navy, Athleta, and Piperlime.com -- and get 10 percent off at Gap, Piperlime, and Old Navy on Tuesdays." Spencer swears by the Angel card from Victoria's Secret. "It comes with a book of coupons you can use all year long, plus you get a free pair of panties on your birthday."
  • Buy gift cards on the cheap, then use them yourself. "Check out plasticjungle.com, cardpool.com, and giftcardgranny.com. At these sites you can purchase gift cards for less than their face value," says Woroch. "Pair them with whatever current coupons the store is offering and you can save 30 percent." Bonus: If you've ever received a gift card for somewhere you never shop, these sites will pay to take it off your hands.
  • Know your favorite stores' markdown days. Spencer keeps track of them on her computer. Monday, for example, is when her local Target slashes prices on electronics, so if she needs an appliance she always swings by then. "Last year on Martin Luther King Day, Dyson vacuums were 50 percent off. I bought two of them and resold one on eBay for a profit," she says. It may take a little detective work, but try typing the store name and the words "sale schedule" into Google to get the lowdown.

Restaurant Savings

Everyone likes to eat out, but when the check arrives it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Here's how to make the bill easier to swallow.

  • Go wholesale. Costco and other bulk stores sell cut-rate gift cards for restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen and Baja Fresh. The locations change periodically, but the price is typically $80 for $100 worth of eats. That's where the good shoppers stop. The great ones? They visit the chain's website, register for its email list, and get a coupon to tack on to the gift card.
  • Read your receipts. "Chain and fast-food places want you to come back soon, so they may offer you a money-off-your-next-visit coupon," Garcia says. Others will give you 15 to 20 percent off your next purchase if you take a brief customer-satisfaction survey.
  • Find a meal deal online. Steer yourself toward savings simply by plugging in a zip code at restaurant.com. You can buy a $25 coupon toward a dinner costing $35 or more for just $10. Also, check out its holiday-season "Feed It Forward" program -- you can send $10 gift certificates to friends for free (hey, your husband is your friend, right?).

Supermarket Steals

If you're like most people, you're at the grocery store at least once a week and spending more than $100 a pop. Knock big bucks off that bill by arming yourself with this advice.

  • Make your coupons work harder. Don't grab that ­shopping cart until you've done three things: scanned the weekly circulars from markets in your area, checked your local newspaper's weekly coupon insert, and logged on to Recipe.com, where you can score coupons for local supermarkets. Why? "Obviously, you'll get the deepest discounts if you use coupons for the items your store has on sale," says Spencer. If you shop at a place that doubles your coupons, all the better! Find a list of stores that do at grocerycouponguide.com.
  • Snap up the bargains. When your favorite nonperishable brands are on sale, buy a three-month supply. "Most sales follow a 12-week cycle, so you'll have to wait that long before you see a low price at that store again," says Teri Gault, founder of thegrocerygame.com, a website that matches grocery ­coupons to advertised and unadvertised sales at local markets. Don't shy away from loading up on some on-sale perishables, either: Most meat can be frozen for up to a year, eggs are good for as long as five weeks, and yogurt stays fresh for up to two weeks.
  • Be your brands' best friend. Like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and they'll reward you with savings, says Melissa Garcia, who writes the blog consumerqueen.com. "I recently got a free full-size bag of Purina One -- the very day I ran out of dog food -- because the company sent a Facebook message offering them to the first 20,000 people who responded."

Wheel Deals

Buying a new or used car can put a dent in your budget for years to come. Fatten your savings account with these negotiation tactics.

  • Hit the superstore. Think you'd do better haggling with the little dealership that's off the beaten path? Nope -- in this case, supersize is better. "Auto manufacturers give dealers volume-based incentives with the biggest rewards going to large outfits that move a lot of cars," says Adam Goldfein, a former dealer and host of the Adam Goldfein Show, a car-buying radio program in Atlanta. "They'll give you a good price to get the extra cash, especially if they're just a few cars short of their goal when you walk in."
  • Go high tech. "Shop on a dealership's website and you'll usually pay less than the showroom price," says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. How come? "The Internet salespeople are on salary, not commission, and are paid bonuses for volume." Your best approach: "Send an email and say, 'I'm shopping for quotes on X vehicle.' It puts them on notice that you're looking around and that you're price-focused."
  • Ask the seller to pay you. If you're planning to drive the same make of car you have now, ask the dealer for a loyalty discount, says Lauren Fix, an automotive columnist for the Buffalo News. What if you want to buy something different? "Tell them you'd like a conquest discount, a ­savings dealers will give you to switch," she says. Either way, you could save up to $2,000.

Vacation Bargains

Ready for some R&R? A few tricks can help you travel in style on a shoestring budget.

  • Do a fly buy. "A lot of people only think to fly in and out of major ­metropolitan airports," says Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor at Orbitz. "If you're willing to consider airports within a 90-mile radius of your destination and are open to connecting flights or a drive, you can easily save $150 off your round-trip ticket." And when you can, travel on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, advises Jaime Freedman of Travelzoo. "Those are the off-peak days so you're more likely to get a deal."
  • Go where the biz is. Taking a weekend vacation? Check out the rates at hotels ­located in business districts, recommends Freedman, who likes W Hotels, Westins, and Sheratons. Not only do they tend to be bursting with amenities, like health clubs and room service, but they also frequently drop their prices by up to 50 percent on weekends, when all the nice people in suits have gone back home. And if you're feeling spontaneous, sign up for Groupon Getaways, the discount coupon site's new partnership with Expedia. You'll receive time-sensitive offers on hotel stays, flights, and more.
  • Drive a deal. Reserve a rental car, but keep shopping around until the very last moment. (Try Kayak to see all your options in one place.) "Car-rental companies normally don't ask for a ­deposit on reservations, so there's no penalty if you back out at the last minute," says Freedman.
  • Collect coupons before you go. Sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, and Yipit aren't good only for savings in your 'hood. Check out what they offer at your destination. "On a family trip to Dallas, we got half off on pizza parlors, putt-putt golf, and baseball games," says Tiffany Ivanovsky, creator of the frugal living website mylitter.com. You can often snag savings at local hair and nail salons, too -- good to know if you're traveling for a wedding or another special event.
  • Spend a little, save a lot. "I always ask for hotel rooms on the concierge floor," says Carol Margolis, a frequent business traveler who shares her tips at smartwomentravelers.com. "They cost about $50 more a night but usually include breakfast, a light dinner, and free bottled water and soda. When you're with your family, the savings in food and drinks really add up!"

How a Smart Shopper Uses a Smartphone

Your phone isn't just for posting Facebook updates -- use it when you shop to save big.

  • Download a barcode app like ShopSavvy (biggu.com) or RedLaser (redlaser.com), then scan product barcodes right in stores to get competing prices at other local retailers or online. (Both are available for Droid and iPhone.)
  • Shrink your overstuffed wallet. CardStar (mycardstar.com) is a handy free app that stores all your rewards cards electronically. Download it so you're not always sifting through piles of plastic at the checkout counter. (Available for Droid and iPhone.)
  • Compare a store's online and brick-and-mortar prices. That's what Ivanovsky did on a recent Ikea shopping trip -- and she discovered that the bunk beds, dresser, and toys she was buying were cheaper in cyberspace. "I went to customer service and asked them to match the online prices and wound up 'saving' $300!"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2011.

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