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Spending Smart: Strategies for Paying Less

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By Gregory Karp

—Beware the accessory up-sell. Smart shoppers research big-ticket purchases, such as a cellphone or television, but they can be tripped up by unexpected pitches for add-ons. Among the priciest are accessories. For example, computer printers usually don’t come with a cable to attach to a computer. A friendly salesperson can remind you of this and sell you a $25 printer cord. Instead, stop at a dollar store on the way home and pick up a perfectly usable cord for a buck. Similarly, today’s televisions are best used with an HDMI cord to hook to the cable or satellite box. Cables can cost $20 to $100 in-store. Skip that and go online to Monoprice.com or Amazon.com to find HDMI cables for about $5. Videophiles say there is no difference in picture and audio quality. With cellphones, the aftermarket cases and chargers will usually be far cheaper somewhere other than the electronics or wireless phone store. And when buying a new car, beware of the F&I, or finance and insurance, room. That’s where they up-sell you on such items as fabric and paint protection and extended warranties.

—Warranties warranted? Extended warranties, more properly called service contracts, are another hard-sell up-sell, especially on electronics and appliances. Personal finance experts and consumer advocates generally are not fans of buying them. They’re almost pure profit for retailers. Many purchases are covered by the manufacturer for a period of time. And if you made the purchase on a credit card, the card may extend that warranty. For autos, service contracts are “a losing bet,” said Consumer Reports. Because vehicles are so reliable nowadays, “the chance of needing extended warranty coverage just isn’t as great as it used to be,” it said. If you really want a service contract, be clear on what it covers. For some products, such as electronics, you might investigate third-party providers such as SquareTrade.com. The third-party automotive service contract industry has had reputation problems. One new company, ForeverCar.com, claims it has designed a more consumer-friendly service contract, based on transparency and simplicity.

—Know a good price. Walking the aisles of a department store, you might be tempted by a product, but is the price competitive? If you own a smartphone, use it to check competitive prices at other retailers. Many stores will “price match,” although policies differ widely and are loaded with fine-print exceptions. Cheapism.com reviewed the policies of eight major stores and rated those at Target, J.C. Penney and Lowe’s as best. Regardless of the written policy, it’s a good idea to ask whether a store will match a competitor’s price. Many stores also offer “price protection,” meaning if the retailer reduces the price on an item within a certain time frame, such as 30 days after purchase, the retailer will refund you the difference. Some stores combine the concepts of price matching and price protection by matching other stores’ prices within a certain time after purchase.

—Chat them up. Talk to salespeople and ask what discounts are available. For example, many restaurants and retailers have discounts for seniors but might not mention them for fear of offending. At thrift stores, ask clerks when they get overstock donations from retailers and when dry cleaners donate unclaimed garments. People who use dry cleaners usually have high-quality clothes that are cared for. Or simply ask a department store salesperson if an item is likely to go on sale soon.

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