NEW YORK (Money Magazine) - What was the last thing you bought? Whatever it was -
a bottle of wine, a sweater, insurance, a car, a mortgage -- chances are you spent time wondering whether you could've gotten it at a better price. And the truth is, you probably could have.
What is it these days that has Americans so obsessed with getting a bargain? Maybe the Web -- packed with all its price comparison tools, product reviews and occasional free shipping -- has taught us a new way to shop.
Maybe we aren't feeling as flush as we did a few years ago, so saving even a little money is more important. Or maybe we just want something new to brag about (since we can't talk about our stock portfolios), so we thump our chests about getting something for less.
Click on any category to the right for strategies and deals from Money Magazine.
Certainly, most people say they're willing to make the effort to save even a little: In a Consumer Literacy Consortium survey of more than 1,000 Americans, the consensus was that saving as little as 10 percent would make shopping around "worthwhile" – for everything from phone service to cars to home insurance.
Don't assume these people are down on their luck. Turns out, the more people make, the more driven they are to find a bargain. According to a recent Yankelovich survey, 69 percent of Americans who earn more than $50,000 a year say it's worth the effort to shop around for the best price. Only 62 percent of those who earn less than $50,000 say the same thing.
Truth be told, it takes surprisingly little effort to save 10 percent or more. In one Consumer Literacy Consortium study, researchers needed to make only three phone calls to save an average of 10 percent on car rentals, 20 percent on color TVs and 50 percent on airplane tickets.
What it really takes is skill. Shopping smart these days means marshaling all of your resources -- the Internet, telephone, coupons, rebates and, of course, your feet.
But before you spend another dime, understand this: We shop too.
That's why we're not going to tell you to buy generic or to go 20 miles out of your way to pocket big savings. This guide is not about sacrificing quality or convenience -- for anything.
It's about shopping smart. After all, there are some things you must buy and then there are the things you want to indulge in -- but you always want to get the best deal possible.
So we've laid out simple, smart shopping strategies for everything from car loans and utility bills to your health-club membership, groceries, airline tickets and books.
You'll find everything organized into the broad categories listed in the table above.
A team of MONEY reporters helped me scour the landscape for the best shopping strategies for just about everything you spend your money on. Along the way, we picked up a few rules of the road.
- Beware the "puppy dog close" -- This is what happens when the store lets you take an item home to play with for a while. The idea is that you'll fall head over heels and buy it without bothering to negotiate on price. That's what General Motors is hoping when it offers a 24-hour test drive, notes Susan Sampson, director of the retail management program at Simmons College in Boston.
- Don't be an outlet sucker -- Much of what you find in outlet stores is not deeply discounted merchandise from retail stores, but goods made specifically for the outlets. In the trade they call this stock "cut-ups," says Marcia Wilson, CEO of Daffy's, a New York-based chain of discount apparel stores. Manufacturers take fabric left over from last year and cut it into this year's styles. That's why some outlet goods now sport specific outlet labels.
- Buying online? Always search the web first for coupons and rebates -- Say you have your eye on a pair of pants on Bluefly.com. Before you buy, open another window and Google the words "bluefly" and "coupon." What pops up? Links to websites like CouponMountain.com, where you can save, for instance, 15 percent on orders of $150 or more.
- Googling for rebates can yield even bigger savings. Search for "rebate" and a particular brand name, and you can dig up big bucks. Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, did just that during a recent buying binge: He got $200 back on a new computer, $80 on a hard drive, even $17.97 on fertilizer.
- Price match on big purchases -- Sears just rolled out a 110 percent price-match guarantee on all appliances, which means it will match any price you find elsewhere, even online, and take off another 10 percent of the difference between the two prices. Circuit City offers a similar deal. Use multiple online price comparison sites to find the best price.
- If in doubt, opt out -- Research has found that impulse purchases -- like most of the shoes in your closet -- account for as much as 40 percent of the things we buy. Think about how you'd feel if you'd saved that money instead -- or better yet, invested it (the Nasdaq is up 25 percent this year).