Comparison shopping (Or, how I saved big on textbooks this year)

I learned early on in my college career (though perhaps not early enough) that buying textbooks at the campus bookstore is rarely a way to get the best deal. The biggest reason to shop at one of these stores is convenience. If you want to pay for that convenience, that’s great! I, however, prefer to shop around for a lower price.

To get the best price, first, you need to find out the ISBN for each of your required textbooks. One way to do this is to go to your university bookstore’s website. Many have online forms that allow you to enter your classes so you can purchase or reserve your textbooks online. Instead of adding the books to my cart, though, I make a note of the textbook’s title, edition number, author, and ISBN.

Next, begin searching textbook sites, textbook meta-searches, and my favorite, half.com. Use the ISBNs to ensure you are searching for the correct edition, since each edition has its own ISBN. Note the best price of each book at each of the sites you visit, and don’t forget to include shipping charges. Keep in mind the used book condition you require. (This is your personal preference. Some people don’t mind “acceptable” books; others prefer “like new.”) I like to compile the pricing information into an Excel spreadsheet, but using pen and paper never fails!

After you make your mini-database, check to see which of the sites you visited are available through your favorite rewards and rebates sites. I used BigCrumbs, which offers rebates at half.com, eCampus.com, and other online bookstores. (BigCrumbs (that’s my referral link, btw) offers a % back on purchases at many other online retailers as well, including eBay.) I compared my books’ prices at eCampus.com and half.com, while considering their rebate percentages, shipping prices, free shipping offers, etc. You can add this additional info into your database to get the most accurate pricing.

For me, the winning combination ended up being half.com through BigCrumbs, which gives me 4.5% back. Your winning combination will vary because you will have different textbooks than I do–among other variables. Also, don’t do your research one week and go back the next week to purchase. You’ll find that your best prices will have changed as copies sell.

I can say from experience that I have consistently found the best prices at half.com for most books, most semesters. I still shop around, though. It really doesn’t take that much time, and each semester I have saved a significant amount compared to the campus bookstore’s prices. This year, the campus bookstore would have charged around $300 for my books and I paid approximately $248 after discounts and shipping.

(Sorry, med students, I know you don’t want to hear me whine about prices!:))

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What I have learned about couponing, pt. 3

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1
Part 2

I hope some of the revelations I’ve had about making coupons more effective have been helpful to you! I may not be very active in couponing these days, but I can still pass on what I’ve learned.

  1. You don’t have to buy the number specified on a “# for $X” deal. My grocery store frequently frequently advertises its “10 for $10” deal. I know that I used to think you had to buy that number of items to get the price. Not too long ago, I was shopping with my BF and he too thought that you had to buy 10 to get the $1/item price. The good news is that in most cases, you don’t have to buy that many. Seriously. If I wanted to buy one, I’d get it for a dollar. If I had a $1/off coupon for that item…yes, that’s right, I’d get it for FREE! (my favorite!!) This also applies for 2 for $5, 3 for $4, or whatever the deal may be. Now, for the disclaimer: Sometimes the fine print does say that you have to buy the number specified to get the price, but that will vary from store to store. Just ask if you’re not sure! As I said, at my grocery store, you’re free to buy whatever number you want and can still get the deal.
  2. You can use 2 coupons on BOGO free deals. Say what? Let’s say a pharmacy (like CVS or Walgreens) is having a buy-one-get-one-free sale on toilet paper. The tp is $5.99 a pack, and this week, it’s BOGO free. Obviously, you can get two packs of the tp for $5.99 total. Furthermore, let’s say you have two coupons for this brand and type of tp. The coupon is for $2 off one pack. Now, this is the part that blew my mind when I initially learned of its magical existence: you can use both of your $2-off-one coupons, even though one item is priced “free”. You would then get two packs for $1.99 (after taking $2 off two packs). It really gets exciting when you have two coupons that, when added together, equal the cost of the item. That is, if you bought the aforementioned tp and used two $3-off-one coupons, you could get two packs for FREE!
  3. Rebates can work! Let me background this one: When I was growing up, I would read all the signs in the stores as my mom shopped. Sometimes, at office supply stores, I’d see a sign saying you could get an item for FREE. When I pointed it out to my mom, though, she said that it wasn’t free; you had to pay for it and then send in a form to get your money back, which didn’t always work. This lead me to believe that rebate offers were untrustworthy and should be ignored. Once I began couponing and researching about it, I noticed everyone talking about rebates. Apparently, they can work! Now, my personal experience with them is too detailed to outline here, but I can say that the Walgreens EasySaver program is reliable and can be worth a look. Overall, my experience with rebates in general has been excellent–so far. I know that occasionally you can get burned, but if you’re buying something you need anyways, it’s not as much of a risk. How do coupons factor in here? Well, at Walgreens, if you use a manufacturer’s coupon, you still get the full amount of the rebate. That is, if Walgreens is offering a $5 rebate on $5 aspirin and you have a $2-off coupon for that aspirin, you can still get $5 back from Walgreens, thus actually making money from the rebate.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my series on couponing. If you don’t use coupons now, the good news is that you don’t have to throw yourself into it to make these tips work. If you’re already getting the Sunday paper and you want to try these tips, pull out the grocery/drugstore ads and the coupon inserts, and see if anything you already buy is on sale. Or, do as I do, and save time: check out the many blogs run by those hardcore couponers who share weekly deals and exactly how to make them work. Without them, I’d still have the same misconceptions about the usefulness of coupons.

What I have learned about couponing, pt. 2

As I mentioned before, couponing may at first seem impractical, but do some research and you will soon find that it can save you money and doesn’t have to be complicated.

However, my main point here during this post series is to share with you some simple realizations I had about coupons as I learned more about how to maximize their effectiveness.

  1. You can combine coupons with store sales. I’m sure this is obvious even to non-couponers, but it’s an important point to remember when trying to get the most for your money.
  2. You can use coupons on clearance items. The tricky part about this one is finding something that is on clearance that still has a non-expired coupon. This is because many items on clearance are not the newest products in-store (e.g. holiday candy), and coupons tend to be for either new items (Save $1 when you try our new, improved breath mint!) or “old reliables” (Cheerios). (Speaking of holiday candy, although it almost always goes on clearance after the holiday is over, the coupons are almost sure to expire on the day of the holiday.)
  3. Catalinas (the coupons that print out of the machine by the receipt machine) with a store’s logo on them do not have to be used at that store. However, the Catalina (or other coupon featuring a store logo) must say “Manufacturer’s Coupon” at the top. To contrast, Target coupons are often found in the Sunday inserts, and they feature the Target logo. Since these say “Store Coupon” at the top, they are not eligible anywhere but at Target. But they can be used for #4:
  4. Store coupons can be combined with manufacturer’s coupons. Some stores such as Walgreens and Target issue store coupons which can be collected from various sources. (Walgreens’ coupons are found in the weekly ad and in the EasySaver booklets; Target coupons can be printed online and found in the Sunday inserts.) This means that if Walgreens includes a coupon for $0.99 lip balm in their weekly ad and you have a $1 off coupon for that same lip balm, you can get it for free!

I’m sure this information is obvious to many people, whether serious couponers or not. Not all of it was obvious to me, though, so I thought sharing it with readers just might help someone out there. I didn’t know about #3 until recently. And #4 and #1 can be combined (store sale + store coupon + manufacturer’s coupon) to get things for very cheap or free.

Stay tuned for the rest of my list in an upcoming post!

Tip Tuesday: Google Calendar

Today I’m introducing a new feature that might become a regular one here on Non¢ent$. Here, I’m going to share with you various methods that I have found helpful when dealing with money. These tips will be related to organization, frugality, couponing, personal finance, and other related areas.

I admit I was wary at first of buying things to get a rebate. I didn’t trust that the store or manufacturer would return my hard-earned money to me. I think my fear was based on what I heard when I was a kid. Rebates were not something my family trusted, and that was passed on to me. From what I’ve read online, though, the Walgreens EasySaver program seems to be pretty reliable.

Once willing to try rebates, I realized that my next hurdle was the fact that rebates (initially) seemed to require a lot of work and attention to detail. You have to make sure you get them sent out by a certain date, you have to save receipts,* sometimes you have to have the UPC, and you have to fill out a form, making sure to follow the rebate form’s specific list of requirements. It all sounded like way too much planning for me to handle.

Then, I noticed how much attention to detail my school schedule requires. I successfully keep track of tests, papers, grading, assignments, and all the other meetings and deadlines a student deals with. I use a simple system that I can access from home or school: Google Calendar.

Why couldn’t I just do that for my financial needs as well–including rebates? Google Calendar is a system that has worked for me because it is so easy to use. I have two calendars that keep track of the different areas of my life–school and money. The two calendars are even color-coded, and I can turn one on or off temporarily so I can focus on one at a time.

To help me remember to send in those rebate forms, I simply create an all-day event for the day that the rebates must be mailed, and then I add a reminder. You can have Google Calendar email you at a time you pick.

This method has given me confidence in my ability to manage the requirements for the EasySaver program. In fact, I just sent out my form for this month–my second month participating in the program.

*Actually, this was one thing that was not a problem for me, since I keep them all anyways…one of the few things I do right!

Never paying for this again – Magazines pt. 3

magazine ends

I’ve already blogged about my first free subscription, earned by watching videos on AdPerk, but I soon discovered that other sites (especially discount magazine subscription sites) occasionally offer free subscriptions, paid for by outside companies.

I have ordered Parents and Fitness (a 2-year sub) through offers on valuemags.com, but I doubt those offers are still valid. Parents just started arriving this week. I also had a 2-issue trial to Real Simple that just finished.

Besides keeping up with the posts on my favorite frugal living blogs and freebie sites, there is another way I keep an eye out for free magazine offers: Google Alerts. You can do any Google search by site, so I use keywords plus a site search, and it emails me whenever something new appears. For example, I could create this hypothetical alert: “free site:samplecheapmagz.whatever” if I know that the site “samplecheapmagz.whatever” frequently offered free magazine subsciptions. Use keywords such as “free”, “complimentary“, or “free subscription” and combine your keywords with site:sitename.whatever.

I hope some of you find this tip helpful; even if you aren’t looking for free magazines, Google Alerts can be quite the overlooked yet useful tool.