10 Ways to Shop Smarter This Year

Real Simple

Shopping can be rewarding or maddening. We buy stuff we need. We buy stuff we want. And we buy stuff we neither need nor want, not always knowing why. The search for an answer to that question―why?―led me on a three-year fact-finding odyssey in which I delved into the cultural, social, and psychological aspects of how Americans shop.

Photo: Brian Cronin

What I found is that the why doesn’t always make sense. Yes, there are clever marketers who provide us with endless reasons to buy, but at the end of the day, nobody puts a gun to our wallets. So our best protection against imprudent purchases is to be aware of what’s influencing us. Here, 10 tips to help you be more mindful with your money.

1. Don't let the store seduce you. Retailers operate on the theory that the quickest way to our credit cards is through our senses. The speakers at Abercrombie & Fitch pump out loud, bass-heavy beats to get teenage hormones rocking; hotels and spas are redolent with aromas of minty freshness; jewelry stores aim high-wattage halogen lights at watches and rings to bring out even more sparkle. These so-called atmospherics entice us so we linger longer and spend more, but they won’t improve the value of the merchandise.

2. Don't let the store scramble your "reference price," either. This marketing term refers to the price that you expect to pay for something (because you have bought that item several times before), and retailers are quite adept at messing with it. Take, for example, a can of tuna. The price in your head is probably around $2.25. But by shrinking the size of the can from six ounces to five, the sellers are making more money, even though the price looks unchanged to you. Sure, when the kids are wailing and you’re in a hurry, you aren’t going to study every price-weight fluctuation. But being aware of this sleight of hand could help you save money from time to time.

More from
Real Simple:

How to Save on Practically Everything

The Five Tastiest Warehouse Club Buys

Personal Money Management Tips in 3 Hours or Less

3. Shopper, know thyself. Some psychologists say that most of us fall into one of two categories: Low self-monitors aren’t too concerned with social feedback and make purchases based on their preference for a product, while high self-monitors buy to fit in. In general, you’ll make smarter purchases if you stick to your shopping temperament. Ignore these thoughts and quite a few buys will never make it out of your closet.

4. Beware of the freebie. Think quick: You’re offered a choice between a free $10 gift certificate and a $20 gift certificate for $7. Which would you take? When behavioral economist Dan Ariely tested shoppers at a Boston mall, they overwhelmingly opted for the free gift certificate, even though that meant losing out on a $13 profit. It’s easy to fall for free! but a price tag of zero can be costlier than it appears.

5. Choose shopping partners wisely. Hitting the stores with a gaggle of pals can be a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but don’t lose sight of how others can influence your buying decisions. This phenomenon is often referred to as “group-level consideration,” meaning that the group, not you, establishes the spending norms and defines what is acceptable and condonable. So if the consensus holds that it’s reasonable to pay $600 for a pair of pumps, you may just find yourself out on the town in heels that scream (to you, at least), “What was I thinking?”

6. Think twice about express checkout lanes. Sometimes spending wisely means keeping an eye on your money and your time―especially if you pay for parking or have to be somewhere, like work, where your time is worth more. You might think it’s more expedient to get in the 10-items-or-less lane. But Dan Meyer, a math researcher and a blogger, has found that when faced with a medium to long regular checkout line and a slightly longer express line, you should generally opt for the regular one. Why? It takes more time to do more individual transactions.

 7. Let your mouse do the walking. Preshopping online is natural for many of us. To the rest: Get clicking! Even if you prefer to buy at brick-and-mortar stores, you can earn savings with sites that seek the best deals (shopping.com, pricegrabber.com), offer customer reviews (epinions.com, tripadvisor.com), or publish wholesale and market prices to help you haggle (like edmunds.com does for cars).

8. Buying online? Use the search box. You’re looking for a new mixer. Type its name into the site’s search function rather than using the category links (“Shop All Departments,” then “Kitchen,” “Small Appliances,” and, finally, “Mixers”). A study by a Massachusetts-based website research firm found that shoppers who use the link method are three times more likely to keep browsing after they’ve found their item and make three times as many impulse purchases as compared with those who use the search tool.

9. Indulge your needs. Narrowly defined, the only things we really need are food, clothing, and shelter (love, too, although buying love isn’t a good idea). But there are other needs that relate to our emotional well-being. Treating yourself to a massage or a new top may lift the spirits and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being reckless. My view? Self-reward isn’t a crime; just stick within your budget.

10. Stock up on experiences. Recently my wife and I returned from a biking trip abroad. We had bought some stuff, mainly clothes, that you don’t find here. It’s nice to tell ourselves those items will remind us of the trip, but they’re bound to go the way of all things cotton or wool. What will live on are the moments, captured in memory or snapshots or both. And that’s what I call money well spent.

Sorry you didn't like this comment. Please provide a reason below.

Are you sure?
Rating failed. Try again.
Request failed. Try again.
We will promote constructive and witty comments to the top, so everyone sees them!
Sorry, we can’t load comments right now. Try again.

    Recommended for You

    • Op-Ed: We moved from New Jersey to a villa in Costa Rica and we only pay $400 a month

      The comfortable American dream doesn't compare to this paradise town in Costa Rica, writes Frederick Haywood.

      CNBC
    • Bill Gates supposedly has long way to go to catch the real richest man in the world

      Coming in at around $86 billion, Bill Gates has ridden his Microsoft fortune straight to the top of the Forbes list of the world’s richest men. Then again, the business magazine doesn’t take into account ...

      MarketWatch q 15 min ago
    • David Cassidy Opens Up About His ‘Beautiful’ Son — and Why He Doesn’t Have a Relationship with His Daughter

      After revealing that he has been battling dementia since 2015, David Cassidy is opening up about his complicated relationships with his two children – Beau and Katie. “I’ve never had a relationship with her,” Cassidy, 66, exclusively tells PEOPLE of his only daughter — who has appeared on Gossip Girl and Arrow. “I’m proud of her,” adds Cassidy.

      People
    • Mom's shocking photo of 10-year-old son depicts painful reality of cancer

      A mom posted this harrowing photo of her son to Facebook. This photo of a 10-year-old boy, bald, pained look on his face, standing in his pull-ups diaper while clinging on to the bathroom sink is quickly going viral on Facebook. The photo may not be pretty, it’s admittedly hard to look at, but it’s a raw depiction of what life is like for a cancer patient — which is exactly why the boy’s mother posted it.

      Yahoo Canada Style
    • Malia Obama in Ultimate Rich Kids' Ski Trip Pic (PHOTO)

      Malia Obama is on an Aspen vacay that will absolutely make you HATE your life when you see who she's posing with in what has to be the richie richiest photo of all time. Here's the answer key for who's who in this shot, taken last weekend at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro in Aspen: 1. Malia 2. Elizabeth Tisch, daughter of NY Giants co-owner Steve Tisch 3. Audrey Kotick, daughter of Activision/Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick (think Call of Duty money) 4. Fashion designer Monique Lhuillier 5. Jamie Tisch, ex-wife of Steve 6. Tom Bugbee, Monique Lhuillier's husband 7. Holden Tisch, daughter of Steve 8. Zachary Tisch, son of Steve 9. Tassilo von Furstenberg, grandson of Diane von Furstenberg When President

      TMZ q
    • Thousands flee, freeway shut in flooding near San Francisco

      SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Rising floodwaters sent at least 14,000 residents fleeing inundated homes in San Jose, California, and forced the shutdown of a major freeway Wednesday.

      Associated Press
    • California Spillway Opens for First Time in 20 Years Amid Recent Storms

      Many braved fierce winds to take a look at a sight that hasn`t been seen since 1997 -- the opening of the Don Pedro reservoir spillway in Northern California.

      Tribune
    • Historian Neil Howe on Bannon, Trump, and the possibility of civil war in the US

      In a revealing interview, Neil Howe—the co-author of The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny—candidly discusses his perspective on Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist and former head of the online news site Breitbart. Bannon is a proponent of the theory that history generally moves in 80-year cycles, with each cycle ending in a crisis that destroys the old order and ushers in something new. In widely reported remarks, Bannon believes the United States has had three “turnings”—the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression/World War II—and is now in the midst of another emanating from the 2008 Financial Crisis.

      Business Insider q
    • Bare Is The Biggest Beauty Trend At Fashion Week 2017

      Bare is the new beautiful, as seen at this year’s fall/winter New York and London Fashion Weeks. From bare faces to bare chests, the most prominent trends included minimal makeup and sheer tops that showcased the natural body. Kendall Jenner (outspoken about embracing her nude chest) kicked off the trend at the La Perla show in a glittering gown resemblant of Marilyn Monroe’s (then-scandalous) “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress. Numerous designers followed suit, flaunting the #freethenipple movement down the runway—including Naeem Khan, Jenny Packham, and Adam Selman, among others. Other designers such as Katie Gallagher have long created a name for themselves for their uncensored aesthetic.

      Forbes q
    • As Bones Mourns, Sully Returns — to Stir Up Trouble for Brennan and Booth?

      Does absence — 10 seasons worth of it, to be exact — make the heart grow fonder? On Tuesday’s Bones (Fox, 9/8c), that question will be answered for Brennan when her ex-boyfriend Sully returns a decade after the two split up. Unfortunately, the character’s surprising reappearance — “I never thought that it would happen. I always hoped it would,” his […]

      TVLine.com
    • This is not a drill: NES Classic Edition is finally back in stock on Amazon

      Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a drill. We repeat, this is not a drill. The NES Classic Edition console you’ve been dying to get your hands on ever since before the holidays last year is finally back in stock on Amazon. What’s more, you can order one right now and your unit will arrive at your house THIS WEEK thanks to free Prime shipping! The Amazon site currently says that the NES Classic Edition is indeed in stock starting right now, so place your order as soon as possible before it disappears yet again. Here are some highlights from the product page: The Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition has the original look and feel, only smaller, sleeker, and pre-loaded with 30 games The pre-installed games include: Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, PAC-MAN, Dr. Mario, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and dozens more Includes a standard HDMI cable Comes with one old-school, grey-colored NES Classic Controller and an AC adapter Also compatible with Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro. Additional NES Classic Controllers will be sold separately

      BGR News
    • Snoopy Snuggles! Hoda Kotb’s Newborn Daughter Haley Joy Gets Oversized Gift from Andy Cohen

      Hoda Kotb‘s adopted newborn daughter Haley Joy is already being showered with gifts from her mom’s famous friends! On Wednesday, Kotb shared a sweet photo to Twitter of an oversized Snoopy sent to Haley Joy from Bravo personality — and Peanuts superfan — Andy Cohen. Kotb surprised Today audiences on Tuesday when she announced she had adopted Haley Joy.

      People
    • Hair-raising video shows stealthy coyote follow doctor into his office in South Carolina

      A security camera recently captured the hair-raising moment a coyote stealthily followed a doctor into his office in South Carolina. The doctor -- Steven Poletti, an orthopedic surgeon -- said the harrowing incident happened early in the morning on Feb. 15 while he was walking into work at the Southeastern Spine Institute in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Poletti had no idea a coyote was behind him until they were both inside the building, he told ABC News today.

      Good Morning America
    • Photos of Former Couples Walking Oscars Red Carpets Past That Will Make Your Heart Hurt (9 photos)

      All of these A-listers have happily moved on ... yet we can't help reminiscing about their past Oscars red carpet moments (and crying a little bit)

      People
    • Flip or Flop's Christina El Moussa ends romance with family contractor amid messy divorce from Tarek

      Less than a month after splitting from her husband and co-star Tarek El Moussa, Flip or Flop host Christina sparked speculations of a new romance. "Christina is single and being in a relationship is the last thing on her mind," Us Weekly quoted Cassandra Zebisch, a representative for the reality TV star as saying.

      International Business Times UK q
    • Why flight attendants prefer to work in economy over first class

      Everyone wants to be upgraded on a flight, apart from the flight attendants it seems. You’d think the cabin crew would much prefer working for a handful of posh people in Business or First Class, instead of hundreds of flustered passengers in Economy, but it turns out that’s not the case. Many airlines have an promotion system, where you start off in economy, then work your way up to business and first class, but other companies let the crew choose where they want to work for that flight. Because according to the accounts of several flight attendants, while they might be serving 10 people instead of 70 in the fancy cabins, their constant demands actually mean they work a lot harder. Heather Wilde,

      New York Post q
    • Here's how Trump has spent his first month in office

      Donald Trump has been in office for exactly one month as of Monday at noon. That's 744 hours...

      Business Insider
    • Once Renowned Surgeon Sentenced to Life Behind Bars for Intentionally Maiming Patients

      Christopher Duntsch once billed himself as the best neurosurgeon in all of Dallas.

      Inside Edition
    • 'The Walking Dead': Here's What Happens to Negan in the Comics

      The newest villain in 'The Walking Dead' has been in the comics for a while, so we may have some clue what will happen to Negan next.

      The Cheat Sheet q
    • Jay Cutler is about to be someone else's problem

      The Bears are looking for trade partners, and are likely to release Cutler if nothing materializes. The Chicago Bears have been trying, without success, to find a trade partner for quarterback Jay Cutler since January, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. If nothing materializes, the Bears are likely to release the veteran quarterback.

      SB Nation q