How to Really Save Money When You Shop

By Philip Brewer on 18 January 2011 (Updated 6 July 2012) 7 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I assume we all sometimes feel the urge to mock people who think that they "saved money" when they bought something at a discount. They buy some exercise equipment or new shoes and are pleased with themselves for "saving $60," even though what they really did was spend twice that. But there is a valid way to save money with a purchase. Hint: It has nothing to do with a discount. (See also: 25 Things to Never Pay Full Price For)

What really works is to make a purchase that lets you produce something, or make a purchase that lets you avoid consuming something.

The first examples that come to my mind have to do with producing or saving energy:

  • Insulation or weather stripping
  • Warm sweater
  • Fuel-efficient car (or motorcycle or bicycle)
  • Energy-efficient furnace (or other appliances)
  • Solar hot water heater
  • Photovoltaic power system

All but the last of those have a payback time that's pretty quick. And those are just some obvious ones. There are all kinds of things that might qualify, depending on exactly how you use them.

Tools are another example — although only if you're actually going to use them to make or fix stuff that you'd otherwise buy or replace. Because so many things are made to be replaced (rather than repaired) these days, tools to make or grow stuff are often a better bet — knitting needles, for example, or garden tools. I got a pressure cooker a few years ago that has probably already paid for itself by saving energy and letting me make good use of cheaper ingredients (not to mention providing vast numbers of yummy meals).

Sometimes it makes sense to buy things you'd otherwise have to rent repeatedly — but not very often. For example, there's a movie that my wife and I like to watch every year. After renting it for a couple of years, we bought our own copy. It was really a matter of convenience, though. Even at just $12 or so, the payback time for the investment is pretty long.

Finally, I want to mention financial investments. Most people seem to treat them as a special case, but as far as I'm concerned they fall squarely into this category — you spend money to buy a stock or bond, and you receive money in the form of interest or dividends (and potentially a capital gain when you sell the investment).

Do you know other ways to save money with a purchase — that is, really save money?

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Pat S.

If you don't absolutely need it, don't buy it. This is the easiest way to cut down on spending. Always shop with a list, and stick to it.
Pat

Guest's picture
gt0163c

I think that it is possible to save money with purchases. The key is to pay less for things that you need to buy anyway. Everyone needs food, clothing (even shoes), housing, transportation, etc. And, if you have to buy something anyway, why is mockable to spend less than you would otherwise?

I think what the author was getting at was people who brag about saving money on non-necessary purchases, particularly buying something primarily (or only) due to the cost savings. But if a friend finds great athletic shoes on sale and can combine that with a coupon and their current athletic shoes are in need of replacing, I'm definitely going to give them a high five and congratulate them on the great deal.

Guest's picture
Luke

Though it takes some discipline, I usually purchase gift cards at a discount only for those stores where I will spend it pretty quickly - like the grocery store. I tend to get a decent "rate of return" on my money this way.

Guest's picture
Olivia

Thought provoking. Anything that gives you a good return on the original price is worth putting money into.

To follow up on your gardening example. Purchasing five $1 tomato plants and a container of basil (which divided into five plants), eventually made a huge difference in our food budget.

Bulk yeast is another. It keeps in the freezer. You can use it for bread, ginger ale, or wine making.

Needle and thread. Sew a button or hem and save a garment.

Our $25 yard sale sewing machine allowed me, (even with primitive sewing skills), to make cloth napkins, reusable cloth gift bags, numerous kid's costumes, repairs, and scrap quilts, thus saving a bundle.

A basic home medical guide. With $67 doctor's visits, this gives great returns, especially when you have kids.

Philip Brewer's picture

Gardening is good, especially if you already have tools and access to some land.

And you can do even better than bulk yeast:

http://www.wisebread.com/how-to-bake-sourdough-bread-and-save-a-buck-on-...

Guest's picture

Stockpiling food that's on sale--saves me money plus a trip to the store. Paying off my house 15 years early-you can look at it as reducing monthly expenses or as having an extra ($XXX--whatever your principle and interest total) to spend.

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Debbie M

Durable goods prevent you from having to buy so many replacements. So that's things that don't break and/or are easy/cheap to fix. Not to mention things that aren't disposable.