By Jean Chatzky with Jonah Freedman, Cybele Weisser and Amy Wilson

(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.

Certainly, most people say they're willing to make the effort to save even a little: In a Con-sumer Literacy Consortium survey of more than 1,000 Americans, the consensus was that saving as little as 10% 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% 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% of those who earn less than $50,000 say the same thing.

Truth be told, it takes surprisingly little effort to save 10% or more. In one Consumer Literacy Consortium study, researchers needed to make only three phone calls to save an average of 10% on car rentals, 20% on color TVs and 50% 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.

With that in mind, 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% 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% price-match guarantee on all appliances, which means it will match any price you find elsewhere, even online, and take off another 10% of the difference between the two prices. Circuit City offers a similar deal. Use multiple online price comparison sites (see the box on page 113) 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% 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% this year).

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 on the following pages 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 four broad categories: home, finance, personal and fun. We also take a closer look at four exceptionally savings-rich areas: cars, consumer electronics, travel and the Web. We will tell you how to shop for each item, including the best places to buy them and even the time of year to snag your biggest savings. Finally, putting our strategies into practice, we unearthed more than two dozen deals on popular products that trend watchers tell us you'll want for the fall. We'll show you where to buy them and how to save at least 10% on each item. Ready? Set? Shop.

Home Tips for saving money on the things you buy for your household

--AUTO AND HOME INSURANCE Rates for both are expected to go up 9% this year, on average, because of increases in medical costs, repair costs and jury awards. To steer clear of a big hike, make sure you shop around for coverage. Even if you're getting a discount from your property/casualty insurer for being a longtime customer, you may be able do better, says Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute. Raising your deductible from $500 to $1,000 will shave as much as 20% off your bill; raising it to $2,000, 25% or more. Safety precautions (from small fixes like buying the Club for your car, to larger ones like installing a monitored security system in your home) can save you another 5% to 15%. Buying all your property/casualty insurance--that's car, home and umbrella policies--from a single carrier can net you another 10%.

Pay close attention to your credit score too. The closer you are to 800 the better. If it's over 700, check out an insurer like Allstate or Progressive that rewards good credit with better rates. If your score's not topnotch, patronize insurers like American Family Insurance and State Farm that don't give your credit score as much weight as, say, your driving record.

--CELL PHONES According to J.D. Power & Associates, the American cell-phone user talks an average of 541 minutes a month and pays $61. But you can pay less. If you make most of your calls after work and on weekends, take advantage of the many unlimited-nights-and-weekends plans and buy fewer minutes. AT&T Wireless, for instance, offers 350 weekday minutes and unlimited night and weekend minutes for $30 (plus taxes and surcharges) a month. If you're a clan of big talkers, consider a family plan. For $160 a month, Sprint will give you five cell phones, 2,500 minutes, unlimited nights and weekends, and free calls within the Sprint PCS network. There's a one-time $36 activation fee for each phone, but the cost boils down to a monthly $32 bill for each person. Not bad.

--GROCERIES Eye-level shelf space is prime real estate on a supermarket aisle, and manufacturers pay a premium to place their goods there. So when you're perusing the aisles, look to the top and bottom shelves for the best deals. And don't assume that the items at the ends of the grocery aisles are on sale--60% of them aren't. If you're shopping for a dinner party, you'll save 30% over local gourmet stores if you go to wholesale clubs like BJ's and Costco for Camembert cheese, prawns, duck breast and other goodies.

--HOME SECURITY A fancy, high-tech security system does not guarantee that your home is theftproof. "If someone wants in, you can try to deter them as much as possible, but stuff is stolen even from the Louvre," says Rick Ostopowicz of the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association. That's why a bare-bones system combined with commonsense measures is perfectly acceptable. ADT's basic SafeWatch EZ system, for instance, starts at a reasonable $99 for installation, plus $27 a month for 24-hour monitoring. Then you can simply make sure it always looks like someone is at home by putting your indoor lights on timers, parking your car in the driveway and investing $20 to $50 in motion sensors that turn on outdoor lights when activated.

When you're looking for a security system, read the fine print for extra charges. Some companies will bill you $25 every time they call the police. If your system is prone to false alarms--94% of all triggered burglar alarms in 1998 were false, according to the Department of Justice--you may decide that's a cost you're not willing to bear. And keep in mind that in some areas, the police won't respond until they receive a verbal verification (from a neighbor, for instance) of a suspected break-in.

--HOUSEWARES Grills, patio furniture and all sorts of other household goods get marked down close to their peak season. When summer rolls around, you'll see discounts on corncob holders and checkered tablecloths. Cookware and cutlery sales typically come around Easter and Thanksgiving. If you're in the market for pots and pans, keep your eye on department store circulars: There's always one piece of a Cuisinart or Calphalon set being marketed as a loss leader (to get you into the store), and it's generally a steal. At the end of July, for instance, you could buy a Calphalon 10-inch nonstick omelette pan at a 40% discount from Macy's. Pick up these individual pieces throughout the year, and eventually you'll assemble a whole set.

Seasonal shopping also works for other household goods. "Spring and fall--that's when clothes go in and clothes go out, so generally you can expect sales for closet and storage items in September and in March," notes Carol Kappenhagen of New York City's Gracious Home. Bedding gets the deepest markdowns in January, when old patterns and fabrics have to go to make room for new ones.

--INTERNET If you're still using a dial-up service with a separate phone line at home--as 65% of Americans are--you stand to slice your bills in half by switching to broadband, which is as much as 50 times faster. DSL service, which works over your existing phone line but won't interfere with any incoming or outgoing calls, is typically $10 to $15 a month cheaper than cable broadband. (Cable is often faster than DSL, but it's typically more expensive too.) Most large DSL providers like Verizon and SBC Communications offer introductory rates of $30 a month that jump to $35 after the teaser expires in three months to a year.

--LONG DISTANCE Steer clear of the big providers like AT&T and Sprint, says Allan Keiter of MyRatePlan.com. The best independent providers--like ECG Long Distance (at ecglongdistance.com) and 1Plus (1pluscom.com)--charge less than 4¢ a minute with no monthly fees, 3¢ a minute less than the big guns.

The exception: If your monthly long-distance bill is $50 or more, look into bundled offers like Verizon's Freedom plan, which offers unlimited local and long distance for $60 a month, plus taxes and surcharges. Or go online: Vonage, a company that routes calls through your Internet connection, charges $40 a month for unlimited local and long distance plus all the necessary hardware. The downside with Vonage: When your Web connection goes down, so does your phone line.

--PETS AND PET CARE The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates that we will spend a record $31 billion on our pets this year. How do you cut those St. Bernard costs down to Chihuahua size?

First, buy your pet medications online or through a discounter rather than your vet. You'll pay just $67 if you buy the flea and tick medicine Frontline through 1-800-PETMEDS and save $15 over what a vet or retailer will charge (shipping is free). Another move: If your local pet store sponsors a clinic, use it for shots or simple treatments for things like ear infections--it's cheaper than a visit to the vet, says Cameron Woo, publisher of The Bark magazine. Also, buy pet food from large specialty retailers like Petco and Petsmart (either online or at the store). Grocery stores are convenient, but they charge more, says New Jersey veterinarian Charlotte Lacroix.

Buying a pet can cause sticker shock too, especially if you're in the market for a particular breed--some purebred Labradors cost upwards of $2,000. You can save significantly by adopting a pet through a breed-rescue organization, suggests Woo. These groups (there's one for every breed) save abandoned pets. The donation you may be asked to make--about $100--is far less than what you'll pay a breeder or pet store.

--UTILITIES If you're like us, you've been pounding the walls over your monstrous summer utility bills. Weren't deregulation and competition supposed to bring lower rates? So we thought. Only in Texas, where several alternative energy providers have survived, have residents saved money by shopping around. According to Harvey Michaels of Nexus Energy Software, alternative providers pop up in other areas, but often discontinue residential service. Check energyguide.com to see if there are any, for now, in your area.

But you can knock an easy 30% off your energy bill by purchasing appliances and electronics products that have earned the Energy Star logo from the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Administration. (It's a star next to the word "energy.") Energy Star appliances are engineered to consume, at a minimum, 10% less power than their peers.

Next, replace your light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. They're more expensive than normal bulbs ($5 to $15 each), but they use 20% of the power and have an estimated five-year lifespan. Don't worry: They give off warm room lighting, not that creepy office glow. Also, check with your local utility--some will offer rebates on the cost of the fluorescent bulb, says Michaels.

Finally, turn off any electronic devices--your TV or computer--left on standby. It could save you a few cents an hour, says Chris Olert of New York City's Con Edison. A nickel saved each hour means $438 in your pocket at year-end--enough to buy a new Panasonic air conditioner with the Energy Star logo.

Finance Savvy steps to cut down the amount of debt you owe--it's the easiest way to save

--CREDIT CARDS Americans are up to their you-know-whatsies in credit-card debt. We owe, on average, nearly $9,000 per household, the largest amount ever, and hold an average of 16 different cards. Thanks to rock-bottom interest rates, however, eliminating that debt is easier than ever. "No one should be paying more than 10% to 11% interest," says credit guru Robert McKinley of CardWeb.com.

It's always worth asking your current card company to reduce your interest rate. (The longer you've held a card, the higher your credit score, which can help you snag a lower rate.) But if you find yourself shopping for a new card, what are the best deals right now? McKinley suggests the following widely available cards: For balance transfers, the no-fee Discover Platinum Card, which offers a 0% interest rate through August 2004. Otherwise, there's the Chase i-Card with an 8.49% rate. And if it's perks you're after, the no-fee American Express Blue Cash Card has a 9.24% APR and offers cash rebates of as much as 5% of purchases if you maintain a balance and 3% if you don't.

--CAR LOANS If you're paying 5% or more on your car loan, consider refinancing. New-car loan rates are typically running about 3.5% for 36 months, 4% for 60 months; used-car rates are usually 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points higher. The savings won't seem all that huge--on a five-year, $20,000 auto loan, a 1.5% rate reduction translates into roughly $900 over the life of the loan--but they'll be big enough to make it worth your while. Why? Because refinancing a car loan costs next to nothing in money or time. The only expense, says Brian Reed, director of Capital One Auto Finance (formerly PeopleFirst), is an average $15 charge from your local Department of Motor Vehicles to transfer your lien.

If you purchased a car in recent months, you may still qualify for a new--rather than used--car rate. Otherwise, shop for the best rate online (bankrate.com has current averages). Your local credit union may offer competitive numbers too. (Credit unions write about 20% of all auto loans.)

For a new car, finding financing on your own--either as a direct loan or in the form of a home-equity line of credit--can also enable you to take the rebate that's often offered in lieu of low-rate dealer financing.

--STUDENT LOANS Interest rates on federally insured student loans fell to historic lows on July 1. The rate on Stafford Loans made after 1998 dropped to 3.42%, and to 2.82% for students in school or in their grace period (the six-month window between the end of school and the first required payment). Rates on PLUS loans for parents fell to 4.22%.

That's good news, but it comes against a shaky backdrop. Borrowers, even parents, can consolidate a portfolio of variable-rate student loans into one fixed-rate loan--but they can do it only once. Right now is a singular opportunity to lock in at around 3.5%. Those slim profit margins have lenders lobbying Congress to make all student loans, even consolidated ones, variable, with an 8.5% rate cap, starting next year.

If you haven't consolidated, do it now. If all of your loans are with a single lender, you must go to that lender for consolidation. If they're not, you can shop around, but do it based on promised future discounts, since today's interest rates don't vary from lender to lender. Most consolidators will give you a one-percentage-point break on your rate for a history of making timely payments. But some, like Sallie Mae, require 48 on-time payments, while others, like Consolidated Funding Service, will lower your rate after 36. Also, look for discounts if you have the payments debited from your bank account. And if you're fortunate enough to be in your grace period, take advantage of it--and the 0.6-percentage-point rate reduction it nets you--by consolidating before it expires.

--MORTGAGES Unfortunately, there's no rule of thumb when it comes to getting the best deal on a mortgage. Sometimes you'll do better online, sometimes through your bank, sometimes with a mortgage broker. (I know this firsthand: When I refinanced recently, a mortgage broker got me a better deal from a large lender than I could get myself. Why? His volume business netted him wholesale rates.)

Call your current lender first and ask if you qualify for a streamlined refi, which involves lower closing costs and fewer paperwork hassles. The trade-off: You may pay one-quarter to one-half a point more in interest than if you'd started from scratch.

If you don't qualify for a streamlined refi, ask yourself this question: How long will I stay in my house? The answer is your guide to the right type of loan for you.

Less than three years If you have more equity than debt, consider replacing your first mortgage with a home-equity line of credit (HELOC). In nearly every market in the country, it's possible to find a HELOC at 4%, the current prime rate. Even if rates go up a full point each year, they'll still be around 5% to 6% by the time you pay off this loan. The best part? No closing costs that you won't be around to recoup.

Three to seven years Look carefully at a hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) that's fixed for the first five or seven years, then adjusts every year thereafter--hence the 5/1 and 7/1 labels. On a $200,000 loan at 4.5%, your monthly payment on a 5/1 ARM would be $1,013. That's $184 a month less than a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 5.99%. Your savings over the first five years: $11,040--in other words, serious coin.

More than seven years A fixed-rate mortgage is probably the smartest way to go. If you like the idea of a 15-year loan but don't want to lock yourself into the higher payments, try making one extra mortgage payment a year and directing it toward your principal. It can knock the term of a 30-year loan down to 23 years. Two extra annual payments a year will knock off another two years.

Personal How to power-shop for clothes, haircuts, babysitters, diapers and more

--BABY PRODUCTS Superstores like Babies "R" Us and BuyBuyBaby provide one-stop convenience but few deals on price. So for big-ticket items like cribs, dressers and rocker-gliders, think Canada, where it is cheaper to produce wood products. If you live far from the border, try Canadian-based shopping sites like forevermine.com or goodnightben.com. Alan Fields, author of Baby Bargains, says their prices run 20% to 40% lower than their U.S. counterparts, even with shipping. If it's a stroller you're after, buy last year's model at 50% off whenever new ones roll in--the updated version often offers nothing new besides colors.

As for those other necessities, like the 2,400 diapers in Year One, wholesale clubs offer the best deals. Sam's Club, Costco and the like sell diapers and infant formula for 30% to 40% less than grocery stores do, though they won't always have certain sizes and brands. Recently, Costco and Sam's Club have begun selling baby clothes too. Costco has all-cotton outfits and jammies for $7 to $10--cheaper than what's on sale at the Gap, but comparable to Old Navy.

--CLOTHING Timing is everything when it comes to getting a discount, says personal shopper Melissa Sexter, who works the New York City area. Department stores traditionally start marking down merchandise after nine weeks on the shelves. In chains like the Gap and Club Monaco, which tend to bring in new merchandise each month, first markdowns--of 20% to 30%--come at the four-week mark. "If you really want an item, or if you're a tough size or picky on color, that's the time to buy," Sexter says. Second markdowns, which come four weeks later, reduce original prices by 50%. By the third markdown (another two weeks) you'll save up to 70%.

To increase your savings at your favorite retailer, consider applying for the store credit card. Sometimes stores that typically offer store-charge customers 10% off even raise the ante: Banana Republic recently offered me 20% (I finally caved). Just be sure that you pay your bills in full--department stores are notorious for charging higher-than-average interest rates.

Interestingly, the pros tell us that you'll almost always do better at department stores than at boutiques. The former have more clout over their suppliers and thus are more inclined to discount; they also have more lenient return policies. "Boutiques hold on to merchandise as long as they can because they have to pay for their inventory up front," explains Pamela Burns, a personal shopper in Washington, D.C.

--DAY CARE Parents spend an average of 9% of their income on child care, according to the Urban Institute. No wonder they're desperate for a deal. Setting up a dependent-care spending account through your employer (90% of Fortune 1,000 companies offer workers this benefit, according to a recent survey) allows you to set aside pretax dollars for day care, which can save you as much as 35%, depending on your marginal tax rate. Or join Women and Company (womenandco.com), Citigroup's financial services program for women, for $125 a year, and you'll net a 10% discount with Childtime and Tutor Time, which run centers in a total of 29 states.

Your least expensive option for one-on-one care may be an au pair. An agency matches you with an 18-to 26-year-old English speaker from overseas, who cares for your children in exchange for room, board and a weekly stipend of about $140, plus $6,000 in agency fees. The total tab for an au pair can be 25% to 60% cheaper than a live-in nanny (but 50% more expensive than day care). The downside: She leaves after a year. Check out Au Pair in America, the nation's oldest such nanny agency (aupairinamerica.com).

--HAIRCUTS finally, tired of expensive 'dos? Then clear your calendar for Monday and Tuesday evenings, when many upscale salons have "assistant nights" where up-and-coming stylists cut your hair for less than half the regular price.

Fun Not everything is a necessity: How to stretch your dollar when you're just kicking back

--BICYCLES If you're in the market for a two-wheeler, now's the time to buy, says Lucien Orza of Briarcliff Bike Works in Braircliff Manor, N.Y. (The worst time: spring, when prices typically peak.) New models come out in the fall, so last year's models will be discounted at least 15% to 25%. Also, where you purchase can be just as important as what you purchase. Bikes arrive from manufacturers just 60% to 70% assembled. It's the responsibility of the dealer to put together the rest--wheels, brakes, seats, controls, handlebar and rear derailer. So before you buy, survey local enthusiasts (they're the ones with grease stains on their calves) on which shop provides topnotch service.

--BOOKS For the best deal on new releases, head to your local book superstore, like Barnes & Noble, where most go for 30% off. (That's about as much as you'll get for a new hardcover at any website, once you've factored in shipping costs.) Plus, if you join the stores' membership clubs--$25 a year at Barnes & Noble; $12 at Waldenbooks--you save another 10%. But for last year's popular titles, surf the Web. We found Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit in paperback for $9.57 at Amazon.com, 40% off the cover price of $15.95.

--MOVIE TICKETS Get 'em in bulk from the cinema websites. At Loewscineplex.com, you can buy five-ticket packs for $25, or $5 a flick, a 50% discount in some cities. At Regalcinemas.com, 50-ticket packs go for $275 (or $5.50 a ticket).

--SKIS If you know exactly which skis you're after, shop online. If not, hit the resort towns in the spring and summer. Resort shops will be slashing prices on last season's models to make way for new ones (having the latest technology is imperative among ski bums). For extra savings, buy demo models, which tend to be high-end and have little wear and tear. Skip the rentals--they've had it.

--WINE A rise in imports coupled with an oversupply of California grapes means values are everywhere. Master sommelier Andrea Immer, author of Great Wine Made Simple, suggests looking for California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from up-and-coming regions and subregions like Paso Robles and Monterey. If you prefer French, buy great chateaus in off-vintages--1999 Bordeaux, for example. Or buy the second labels: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild sells wine under the name of Carraudes de Lafite for one-third the price of the premier cru. For everyday values look to Chile, Australia and other Southern Hemisphere wine powers (see "The Better Half" on page 127).

To find a good wine value in a restaurant, Immer suggests this classic yardstick: Take the most expensive entree on the menu and multiply the sticker by 1 1/2. (So if the filet mignon is $26, look for a bottle of wine around $39.) "Expect to find a good range of choices at that price point," says Immer, "and don't feel you have to spend more." The old choose-the-second-least-expensive-wine on the menu also remains a good strategy. "Restaurant wine buyers give a lot of attention to the low end of the price scale," Immer says, "so there are great values and quality gems in that category."

--HEALTH CLUB How much is too much? The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association says the median initiation fee is $150 and median monthly dues are $52. To reduce your bill, check with your company's benefits department: Many employers offer health-club discounts (as do some health insurers). If you go it alone, shop in summer, when attendance is down. And haggle: If you threaten to walk, many gyms will make you a better offer, says eDiets.com's Kelli Calabrese.

Of course, you should be honest about how often you'll go. The average annual gym tab is $774. Yet the typical American visits the gym 92 times a year, which works out to fewer than two weekly workouts at more than $8 apiece. If you don't think you'll make it to the gym twice a week--or your gym costs are above average--you might be better off taking individual fitness classes. One example: A 25-class card costs $200, or $8 a class, at Downtown Gym & Fitness Club in Fort Lauderdale.

So what are you going to do with all the money you save? We'd argue for investing it. Then again, we work at MONEY.