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

    • Mariah Carey’s Rep Confirms Star’s Split From Billionaire Fiance James Packer After Fight in Greece: Read the Statement

      Mariah Carey’s rep confirmed that the star split from her billionaire fiance, James Packer, after a fight in Greece — see the statement

      Us Weekly
    • This photo of a dog with a mouthful of ladybugs is freaking out pet owners

      The photo that Kansas veterinarian Lindsay Mitchell posted to Facebook looked so unreal and disturbing that some who saw it went right to the hoax-busting website Snopes to verify it. But that didn’t stop the photo from being shared more than 53,000 times since it went up last week. Mitchell, of Hoisington, Kan., posted a graphic picture of a dog with a mouthful of Asian lady beetles. Ladybugs aren’t so cute when 30 to 40 of them are stuck to the roof of a dog’s mouth. “This is the second pup I have seen like this today. If your pet is drooling or foaming at the mouth look for these lady bugs. They cause ulcers on the tongue and mouth and have a very painful bite,” she wrote on the Hoisington

      The Charlotte Observer q
    • Kim Kardashian Concierge Reveals New Robbery Details: ‘They Weren’t There for Jewels’

      ET sits down exclusively with the concierge during Kim Kardashian's robbery, who recalls the terrifying events of Oct. 3.

      Entertainment Tonight
    • Russell Wilson's injuries are even worse than we thought

      First, on the knee injury, Wilson told Seattle media he wasn’t supposed to play for four weeks. Wilson, with the help of a live-in therapist, never missed a game. Wilson has a pectoral injury he’s dealing with.

      Shutdown Corner
    • The 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Are a Disgrace to Music

      Last week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced 19 nominees for its class of 2017. Five of these nominees will be inducted into the Hall. I am certain many of the Hall’s members and voters mean well, and I have heard nice things about their museum (which I have not visited). But the Hall, as it exists now, is so deeply flawed that it risks not only having a lack of credibility, but also a lack of validity. In other words, it doesn’t just make mistakes; the mistakes seem to be endemic, built into the fabric of the organization. And you know what? Rock ’n roll deserves better. Rock ’n roll (by which I mean any and all manifestations of music-based expression and art, from King Oliver to Tony

      The New York Observer q
    • The Real Meaning Behind Snape's First Words in "Harry Potter" Is Absolutely Heartbreaking

      As if dealing with Severus Snape's death and his sad story wasn't tragic enough, a new revelation about the character has come to light – and it's heartbreaking. A serious Harry Potter fan has developed a new theory around Snape's opening line in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. In the film, Snape, played by the late Alan Rickman, asks Harry, 'Tell me, what would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?' While the complexity behind the Potions question went completely over our heads, it turns out that it was very important to the story. The fan, who goes by the name tomhiddles, decoded the meaning behind the words and was shocked at what it really meant.

      Good Housekeeping q
    • VIDEO: Man pistol whips scary clown prankster in California

      A video showing a man dressed as a clown scaring random people in Northern California has gone viral after one man pistol whipped the prankster.

      KABC – Los Angeles
    • Amazon's $99 Prime problem

      The e-tailer's weaker earnings highlight the dilemma it faces with a capped $99 annual fee. But it's looking to boost subscriptions elsewhere.

      CNET q
    • What Will Happen to Mariah Carey’s Ring from James Packer?

      If the news of Mariah Carey’s split from James Packer is permanent, there are some very important custody arrangements to work out. Who gets to take the jet to her children’s sports games and performances?

    • Dear Abby: Daughter, 5 kids abruptly move in

      DEAR ABBY: I have been with my wife for 16 years. She has a grown daughter who’s the mother of eight kids, but she only has five with her at this time. My problem is, the daughter got evicted, and all of a sudden she brought her belongings to the house. She didn’t ask or anything, she just showed up with the five kids and they are driving me up the wall. I already have two adolescent kids, so seven ain’t heaven. I have tried to talk with my wife, but she doesn’t listen. I’m fed up, Abby, and I’m looking for other accommodations. They have been here for two weeks and — by the way — my sons are now in school while her five are running wild in the house. Am I wrong for leaving? — NEEDS MY OWN SPACE

      Chicago Sun-Times q
    • Clinton nearly doubles lead over Trump in latest CNBC survey

      Clinton leads Trump by 46 percent to 37 percent among registered voters in a two-way race in new CNBC All-America Survey.

    • Seven Small Towns You Must Visit in the U.S. (7 photos)

      New York Citymore specifically the neon insanity around Times Squaremay be the most popular tourist destination in the United States, but travelers dont need to navigate the Big Apple to take home a memorable experience. Americas small towns have a lot to offer tourists, from lakeside picnics to golf with a view to carriage rides through cobbled streets. While New York may have many of those options, too, theres no need to figure out how to work a Metrocard or navigate a ride from JFK Airport in small town America. Small towns offer a slower pace of life that translates to a truly restful vacation. Make plans for a long weekend or hit the metropolis for the big museums and glitzy theatrical productions, but tack on a side trip to a bucolic smaller city for some true relaxation in a charming environment. Here are seven small towns to add to your domestic bucket list.

    • Blac Chyna Speaks Out on Reports She Cheated on Rob Kardashian With Pilot Jones

      LAPD confirmed to ET on Thursday that Kardashian was being investigated for allegedly threatening Jones.

      Entertainment Tonight
    • Transgender Model Stuns in Bathing Suit on the Cover of ELLE Brazil

      Models getting their own magazine cover these days is rare (Karlie Kloss might be pretty but the Kardashians sell copies), but Valentina Sampaio fronts ELLE Brazil’s November issue. Sampaio, who wears a blue bathing suit and a Burberry coat in the shot, made waves when she came out as a trans woman on International Women’s Day through a video for L’Oreal Paris for which she is an ambassador. “It comes from the soul.” She goes 2016’s Women’s Day was officially her first, Sampaio’s cover is not without precedent.

      Yahoo Style
    • Tomb of Christ opened for the first time in centuries

      Researchers have uncovered the original surface of what is traditionally considered the tomb of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The tomb's surface had been covered by a thick layer of marble, according to an exclusive by National Geographic. "The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it," said Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society working at the site.

      International Business Times UK q
    • Tim Tebow answered Stephen A. Smith's dumb question with a riveting inspirational speech

      Hate on Tim Tebow all you want, but there’s no denying he’s one of the most motivational guys in sports — period. On Tuesday he appeared with Stephen A. Smith on First Take and dropped the best speech you’ll hear all week. When he was criticized for taking a long shot at making an MLB roster, Tebow dropped the hammer.

      SB Nation q
    • The Sixers Fan Who Flipped Off Russell Westbrook Is A Doctor Who Claims He Was Provoked

      Immediately after this happened, everyone wanted to know this dude’s identity (and, if you’re Jeff Van Gundy, why Westbrook wasn’t allowed to go into the stands and beat the hell out of him). As it turns out, Philly.com learned that this Sixers fan is named Richard Harkaway, and when he’s not trying to get a rise out of All-NBA guards, he’s a urologist in Philadelphia. In this instance, after standing up to boo and being provoked by Russell Westbrook calling attention to my being overweight, my action in response was clearly inexcusable and I am embarrassed.

    • 5 Reasons Why a Woman Falls Out of Love

      Has the lady in your life lost that loving feeling? Here's why.

      The Cheat Sheet q 11 min ago
    • Mariah Carey 'dumped' by billionaire fiance James Packer but keeping $10m engagement ring

      The fairytale may be over for Mariah Carey and her fiance James Packer with reports claiming the couple have split. The Australian businessman is alleged to have ended his 10-month engagement to the US pop star due to her extravagant spending in the midst of their wedding preparations. Packer, 48, proposed to Carey, 46, in January 2016 after almost a year of dating and presented the Grammy-winning singer with a $10m (£8.1m) engagement ring which he is reportedly allowing her to keep.

      International Business Times ONC UK q