10 Stupid Shopping Mistakes Even Smart People Make


I bet you consider yourself a savvy shopper, and probably rightfully so. You search for online discount codes before checkout, pull up mobile coupons at the register, and buy in bulk when necessary. Yes, you're a veritable savings superstar — but I'm about ruin your day.

Even the smartest shoppers make stupid mistakes — including me — by overlooking more savings opportunities right under their noses. That ends today. So you can smell what the Rox is cookin', take a look at these 10 buying blunders and change your spendthrift ways.

1. Not Stacking Coupons at Checkout

There's no question that you're using coupon codes at checkout when you're shopping online, but let's face it — that's amateur hour. Those of us in the major leagues know how to work the system to take advantage of the highest-level discount that we can possibly achieve.

Take a recent purchase I made at Gap.com, for instance. I received a promo email touting 50% off one regular-price item, along with 35% off the rest of my purchase. I had to enter two separate codes for the deal. Since the system accepted two separate codes, I wondered if it would take a third, and I found a few online that seemed valid. The first one I entered was rejected, but the second one for an extra 10% off for card members was accepted. Since the system took three codes, I thought maybe it would take a fourth; free shipping — huzzah! By the time I checked out, I had reduced what was originally $222.75 to $80.79, and because I used my store card, I got reward points that will save me more on a future purchase.

This won't work everywhere, mind you, since each retailer's system is different. But, like your momma always told you, you won't know until you try.

2. Bypassing the Refurbished Rack

I have to admit that I don't give much thought to refurbished products. I like the thought of having items that are new and untainted by grubby human hands because, well... they just make my soul feel right. Turns out I'm paying dearly for this snobbishness though, and I may have to reconsider.

"Not evaluating the refurbished sections at Sears, Best Buy, Dell, Apple, or other electronics retailers [is a mistake]," says Phong Vu, CEO of DealScience. "The electronics inside are almost always in tip-top shape and always come with a warranty — big red flag if there's no warranty. These aren't your dent-and-scratch items either. Nowadays, refurbished items look practically new."

3. Failing to Leverage Price Matching

This is a tactic I learned when I purchased an outdoor theater system for my home last summer. The salesperson at Best Buy told me he was going to consult the online store to see if there was a price difference between in-store and the website. (Nice guy, that one.) If there was a lower price, he would match it. There was, to my bank account's delight. As a result, I make sure to take advantage of this opportunity (if it exists) every time I make a high-price purchase wherever I shop.

"When Amazon came along, a lot of retailers like Best Buy, Walmart, and Target felt the price pressure," Vu explains. "Each of these stores now matches Amazon (and each other) on price. Policies differ by store, so you'll need to read the fine print. In addition, Amazon even matches itself: If you find a lower price on an item you just bought within seven days, they'll give you a refund on the difference in price."

4. Shopping Like There's Wiggle Room in Your Budget

A lot of times we give up after we're satisfied that we've saved a certain amount — but is that the maximum amount you can keep for yourself? In some cases it isn't, which is why (if you're dedicated to recouping every last cent you can) you should buy like your budget depends on it (because it does). This is a particularly useful habit when you're booking travel.

"Savvy shoppers can utilize Airbnb, HomeAway, and other [short-term rental] sites on vacation for cheaper accommodations," Vu suggests. "In many cases, you can rent a fully furnished house or apartment for less than your typical hotel chain, like Marriott or Hilton."

As a short-term rental host myself, it's important for me to press this issue. Personally, I offer an entire two-story, three-bedroom home near the beach for less per night than local one-room hotel accommodations. I also undercut all the competition in my area and offer the most amenities, so my guests are truly getting their money's worth on their vacation accommodations.

Remember, though, that this habit doesn't only apply to vacations. You should be shopping like there's no wiggle room in your budget on anything — from groceries to gym membership.

5. Buying Something Just Because It's on Sale

Even though I'm a personal finance expert, I'm still only human — and I'm guilty of falling prey to falling prices. There have been plenty of times that I've bought things just because they were on sale (hello, holiday decorations), and it's a character flaw that I'm actively trying to correct.

I wonder if they have anonymous meetings for discount Christmas décor hoarders...

"Buying something solely because it is on sale is one of the best ways to waste your money," says Sarah Giller Nelson of Less is More organizers. "Before you purchase something on sale, ask yourself if you would still buy it if it was full price. If the answer is no, then save your money for something to come along that you truly love."

"I see this a lot with my more creative clients," adds Katherine Trezise of Absolutely Organized. "They purchase storage containers, decorative items, and craft supplies simply because they like the way they look and therefore assume they could use them — somehow, someday," she says. "I encourage my clients to wait to shop for something until they are ready to put it into use or give it away. Someday is not a day of the week."

Sage advice. These two are never allowed in my basement.

6. Not Negotiating Financing

This is another one of those why-didn't-I-think-of-this tips, but I understand how you can wave the white flag during the financing part of the deal after heavy price negotiating. You don't want to seem cheap or greedy — but that self-consciousness will cost you. Take the advice of millennial finance expert and author of The Broke and Beautiful Life, Stefanie O'Connell, and go in for the kill anyway. You'll thank yourself later.

"One major shopping blunder is working hard to find and negotiate the best price, but failing to apply that same strategy when it comes to financing the purchase," O'Connell says. "On a mortgage, for example, many people take the first quote they get from their lender. It's far more likely that a negotiation of a few percentage points on the interest rate of a 15 to 30 year loan will pay off more than negotiating a few thousand dollars on closing costs."

7. Ignoring the Fine Print of Credit Cards

This probably seems like Shopping Savvy 101, but most of us pay more attention to the perks of a credit card than the fine print. This is precisely the purpose of all those attractive incentives: Dangle something shiny in front of your eyes, and you'll totally overlook the ruse. Consider this a reminder to keep your wits about you, especially at the cash wrap.

"Signing up for a store credit card may seem like a good idea for even the most savvy shoppers — who doesn't want 20% off their first purchase?" asks Kevin Fleming, founder of Credit Forums. "The truth is, however, that many store cards have high interest rates, hidden fees, and lots of fine print. For example, many store cards offer a 0% introductory period with no interest if paid in full. This may seem like a great deal for those who want to finance a large purchase, like a new TV. But there's a huge catch: If you don't pay off your purchase by the end of the introductory period, you may owe deferred interest."

In other words, don't apply for plastic without reading the fine print.

8. Costly Assumptions on Past Experiences

Has a retailer put a bad taste in your mouth because of its high prices? Have you avoided that retailer ever since? Well, you might be doing yourself a disservice.

"Comparing prices is a fundamental savings strategy, but sometimes assumptions get the best of us," warns Kendal Perez, savings expert at Coupon Sherpa. "For example, my mom purchased a griddle for my husband and me on Christmas, buying it from a local store in town. She was shocked to find it for $20 less at another local shop known for high prices, since she assumed it would cost more there."

You know the saying: Old habits die hard — until you start bleeding cash.

9. Letting "Vacation Brain" Control Your Wallet

Deny it all you want, but we all know Perez is talking about you (and me):

"With Spring Break coming up, many of us will allow 'vacation brain' to take over and bust budgets on 'just one more drink' or a pricey excursion in the spirit of YOLO," she says.

I often write about splurging on vacation — and sometimes that's okay — but you don't need to ball like a Rockefeller on every getaway. Unless, of course, you like eating powdered mac-and-cheese when you get home. Otherwise, reign it in, vacation like the average American you are, have a couple meals at Le Sizzler, and come home with change to spare.

10. Not Speaking Up When You've Been Overcharged

This is a foreign concept to me because I have a big mouth, but I can see how the meek and timid can get steamrolled if they're not careful. But if you stick with me, kid, you'll learn how to complain at the register and annoy everybody else in line just like the rest of us.

"Selecting something you think is on sale only to find it rings up for more is irritating, but failing to tell the cashier about it and buying the item anyway is not smart," Perez says. "Whether it's a passive nature or not wanting to be 'that guy' holding up the line with a price check, staying silent can be costly."

Do you have other stupid shopping mistakes that even smart people make? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

Great list. I heard some great advice in regards to #5. Basically, don't buy it unless you know exactly where you will put it in your house, or who you will gift it to and what for what occasion. If you can't determine a specific use or purpose, put it back.

Guest's picture

I've been a sucker for a sale in the past. Not so much now.

Another thing to consider that fits with #10 is knowing the store's scanning policy or code of practice. Some stores will give you the item for free if it scans at a higher price than that displayed on the shelf. So, it's worth being familiar with the price and keeping an eye on the customer display as you check out.