(Linda Stern is a freelance writer. Any opinions in the column are hers. You can follow Linda Stern's financial notes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lindastern)
By Linda Stern
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The best way to save money is to not shop. Really. If you don’t go to the store (or the online store), you can’t spend anything, and that’s cheaper than getting a bargain. Especially if you tend to spend an additional $50 or $200 on your way in or out of the store to pick up the “bargain.”
But sometimes, you have to buy something. Especially now, with a new season and a new school year approaching. Kids need shoes and notebooks. Everyone needs to eat. The good news implicit in this economy’s bad news is that there are still too many retailers, websites and manufacturers competing for those sparse recession dollars. And THAT means you can find good deals everywhere.
If you know how to shop, you can triple up manufacturer’s coupons, retail store sales and credit card/web portal cash-back deals. If you don’t know how the game is played, you could fall into traps that cause you to spend more, not less. Here’s how to find — and make the most of — the best deals out there.
— Take your time looking for the items you know you’ll use. When they go on sale, jump. Staples had spiral bound notebooks on sale last week for one penny each — six to a customer. Office Depot was giving away free rulers and erasers. Maybe next week they’ll have a similar come-on for pens and highlighters. Start shopping early, and buy only those items you know your kids will use and that are screaming bargains. Wait until you get lists from their teachers before buying any school supplies that are not on sale.
— Avoid brand loyalty whenever possible. If you live in an area with more than one grocery, drug store, discount chain (like Target) and office supply store, you’re in luck. You can play their sales, gimmicks (like double coupons) and rebates against each other. And try not to have brand loyalty on the most heavily promoted products, like soaps and cereals. One week you might pay a buck a box for Kellogg’s, the next week it might be Post.
— Learn prices. If there are certain items you buy all the time, such as laundry detergent, canned tuna, whole-wheat pasta, try to memorize how much/little you’ve paid for it. You’ll be able to discern a good price or deal easily.
-- Read circulars and clip coupons. Virtually every grocery, drug store and office supply retailer publishes a weekly sales circular. If they aren't in your morning paper, go to the websites of the individual retailers and check them out once a week, before you do your shopping. Meanwhile, clip coupons (only for products you actually would use) from magazines, weekly promotional mailings, and coupon websites, such as Coupon Mom (www.couponmom.com), Coupons.com (www.coupons.com), and Smart Source (www.smartsource.com). Now put them together. When you have coupons for an item that is on sale and the retailer is paying double on coupons, buy a bunch. That's what your pantry is for. One site that does a decent job of putting those deals together for you is Coupon Cravings (www.couponcravings.com).
— Don’t double count deals in your head. Some stores, such as CVS and Shopper’s Food Warehouse, have started giving cash-off-your-next-purchase deals if you buy something. For example, spend $15 on sunscreen, get $5 off your next shopping trip. You can go back the next day (or even the next minute) and use the coupon to get $5 worth of more stuff, such as a couple of bags of candy bars. So, you either got 30 percent off the sunscreen or free candy bars, but not both. Those coupons can be a good deal, if you use them to buy items that are on sale and that you would typically use. But you’ll be lured into extra spending if you double count them.
-- Pay the right way. You can squeeze out extra savings if you pay for your purchases with a credit card or through an online web portal that kicks cash back to you. But it can be hard to match the retailer with the best cash-back deal. There's one website that will do it for you: Ev'reward (www.evreward.com). Type in the name of the retailer at this site, and it will give a close-to-comprehensive list of all of the credit card, college-savings and web-portal programs that are giving rebates for purchases at that retailer.
-- Want more? You could spend all day surfing the online savings sites to squeak extra savings out of back-to-school deals. Catch chatter at www.couponforum.com, or look at a decent list of savings sites at Retail Anarchy (retailanarchy.com). Think of it this way: The more time you spend researching deals, the less time you'll have to actually spend money.
editing by Gunna Dickson