My cousin, who has three kids, is a wizard at cost-cutting. Inspired by her example, I recently tried an experiment. Over the course of a week, I attempted to get a lower price on every purchase I made or bill I received over $50.
The results were astounding -- I saved about $500. More than a third of that was on a single bill: After a local dealer demanded $200 to repair my broken window blind, I called the manufacturer, who told me to drop it off at a factory service center. In a week, the shade was fixed and shipped back, free of charge.
Other savings were even easier. I spent 30 minutes in court protesting a $125 speeding ticket and got it dismissed. Five minutes on the phone to my credit-card company, and the card's $55 annual fee was waived. Another quick call to a magazine service shaved $124 off the renewal price of a bunch of gift subscriptions.
Clearly, my cousin was right: Speaking up does bring costs down. Whatever bargain you're seeking, these techniques should help.
Don't believe everything you read. Relying on advertised sales can be a costly mistake. Charles Whitehouse thought he'd buy his son a deluxe scooter at an after-Christmas sale in Sandy Springs, Georgia -- until he discovered that the model he'd bought his daughter for $90 before Christmas was $149 during the "sale." If you do see a good-looking ad, bring it to the competition. Some merchants will match or beat other stores' prices, especially on big-ticket items.
Dig around for discounts. Angle for a price cut on merchandise that is scratched, dented, or otherwise flawed. But don't stop there. If you're buying shoes for the entire family, for instance, request a quantity discount. Inquire about family plans, corporate rates, weekend specials, and professional discounts, too. Remember, it doesn't hurt to ask: One of my neighbors pressed a salesman about a lower price on a high chair, and he offered her $50 off a model that had just been discontinued.
Go straight to the top. Can't cut a deal with a clerk? Ask for the manager or supervisor -- they have more authority to negotiate. When a bank teller demanded $15 to certify a check, I asked an officer why the fee was so high. He explained it was the bank's policy -- but waived the charge as a one-time courtesy.
Pursue package deals. When you buy a costly item, like a computer or DVD player, try to get the merchant to throw in a few extras (such as software, paper, or DVDs). To make a sale, some stores will offer free instruction, assembly, or delivery on big-ticket items. Packages can save you even more money when you hire a carpenter, painter, or other specialist. Once they've come to your house and set up their equipment, additional work can be done at a minimal cost.
Be flexible. Small changes can make a big difference in price. Whatever it is you're buying, it's smart to consider similar styles, models, and colors. (Does your dishwasher really have to be blue, or would cream do?) Waiting a few days for delivery can net you a discount as well. Patience also pays off when it comes to vacation plans: Taking a Saturday afternoon flight instead of a Friday evening one, for instance, could cut the fare in half.
Be willing to switch service providers. When a neighbor's pediatrician retired, a friend recommended her family's doctor. My neighbor not only likes the new physician better, but his fees are about 35 percent lower. Now she always compares rates before hiring anyone, including dentists and lawyers. As she learned, high prices do not ensure the highest quality.
Push yourself beyond your (city) limits. When their fourth child was born, Margie and Bill Connors, of Rowayton, Connecticut, decided to buy a minivan. Margie studied a car guide, scoured the Internet for invoice prices for the model they'd selected, then negotiated with the nearest dealer. But she still didn't sign on the dotted line: Instead, she called every other dealership within a two-hour radius in search of a more competitive quote. Armed with that information, she got the local firm to come down another $1,800 below its "best price."
Get on the hot list. Join the mailing lists of your favorite stores, Web merchants, and tour operators. You'll receive coupons as well as advance notice of sales, special airfares, and other bargains. Ana Montes, of Deerfield Beach, Florida, signed up for several lists, and now she receives numerous coupons for baby food and formula -- even equipment like car seats. Christina Masters, of Scarsdale, New York, scored coupons for $8 on a pair of children's sneakers and 50 percent off on her husband's dress shirts.
Search cyberspace for coupons. The ones you find there are often much more worthwhile than the kind you clip out of your Sunday circular. Many Web merchants post offers for $10 off or 20 percent off any purchase, for instance. (For a list of good Websites for bargain-hunters, see Net a Great Deal/page 3.)
Buy in bulk. Nonperishable or long-life items like canned goods, pet food, paper products, and cleaning supplies are all safe to stock up on whenever they're on sale. Just make sure to check expiration dates and unit prices -- giant containers aren't always a better buy.
Try some teamwork. If a jumbo pack of, say, apples is too much for your family, shop with a friend and split what you buy. Teamwork can also mean savings at clothing stores offering a second sweater or pair of shoes at half price. And while joining forces on mail or online orders may not reduce prices, it does lower shipping costs -- especially when shipping is free on purchases above a minimum amount.
For big jobs, get estimates in writing. When a large, dead tree had to be removed from my yard, the price quotes were so varied that I asked for the details on paper. That's when one man admitted that his initial bid was just for cutting down the tree; carting away the debris would be another $110.
Hunt for hidden charges. Some retailers boost profits by tacking on high fees for shipping and handling, delivery, installation, assembly, and other services -- including some you might not expect. When a friend shopped for a new refrigerator recently, she learned that one store not only charged $100 for delivery but also wanted another $75 to remove the old appliance.
Be on the lookout for funny financing -- including promotions promising "no money down and no interest for another six months." Often, the bill must be paid in full when the free period ends, or you'll be charged interest retroactive to the purchase date.
When you get a bill, don't focus only on the bottom line. Scan every item for erroneous charges. My family and I have been billed for meals we didn't eat, heating oil we didn't receive, medical tests we didn't have, and lots more. The mistakes were quickly corrected -- but only because we found them.
Unhappy with something you bought or a service you received? You can get your money back -- and more -- with an effective complaint. Here's how:
Copyright © 2004 Rebecca E. Greer. Reprinted with permission of Parents Magazine March 2004 issue.