Best Bargains of 2011
Our annual guide to markdowns, discounts and strategies to save you money.
Get the best bang for your buck, on everything from stocks and credit cards to cooking and cars.
SEE THIS STORY IN SLIDES: BEST BARGAINS 2011
Snag It Now
Hawaiian Island Hop. Head to Hawaii in mid September and save $782 over a mid-July trip. The tour of Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island from BeachDestinations.com includes 12 nights’ lodging and round-trip airfare from Los Angeles for two. Cost: $2,849.
An Exotic Chinese Adventure. Visit Beijing and Shanghai in November and spend $2,731- compared with a mid-July price of nearly $4,000. The trip for two includes round-trip airfare from Boston, a flight from Beijing to Shanghai, and hotel stays for three nights in each city. Book at Trip-Masters.com.
Cook out, Eat in. Eating in restaurants is pricey. Cooking at home is a chore. Split the difference by attending a meal-prep session at a professional kitchen operated by Dinners Done Right or Make & Take Gourmet. The companies provide ingredients, utensils, recipes, containers and food prep. You assemble the meals and bring them home to freeze and cook later. Cost: about $4 to $6 per serving.
Chevrolet Impala. The Impala gets a refresh for 2012, but the ’11 is selling for an average of 22% below the starting sticker price of $25,215, according to TrueCar.com. The Impala gets nearly 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
Cadillac DTS. Last chance to get the classic Cadillac cruiser; the DTS bows out this year. At 19% below the $47,600 starting sticker, you can justify extras such as the lane-departure warning and blind-spot alert package ($695).
Nissan Armada. Nissan’s biggest SUV has three rows of seats and 20 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row—but with gas prices high, sales have been slow. Pick up the Armada (starting at $38,885) for 17% off sticker.
Chevrolet Aveo. The Aveo will be replaced by the Chevy Sonic for 2012, so dealers are pushing it off the lots at 19% off sticker price (starting at $12,725). The subcompact gets 27 mpg in the city, 35 on the highway.
Cheap Tunes. Just because you play songs on iTunes doesn’t mean that you have to buy them from the Apple Store. As Amazonattempts to attract music customers, it often undercuts iTunes prices. Its MP3 Daily Deal offers a deeply discounted album, usually to the tune of $3.99. Recent offerings include rapper Jay-Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt and The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow.
Best Time to Buy Furniture. New furniture hits showrooms in August, according to the American Home Furnishing Alliance. That means you can save 10% to 50% in July as retailers make room for the new inventory. January is another good time to buy, as new inventory arrives in February.
Lock in Your Kids’ Tuition. In 13 states, you can still prepay in-state tuition years in advance, protecting yourself against future tuition hikes. See whether your state offers a prepaid-tuition plan at the College Savings Plans Network. If your student wants to attend a private school, look into the Private College 529 Plan, which offers a similar arrangement for more than 270 participating private colleges.
Xerox Stock (XRX). Best known for its photocopiers, Xerox acquired Affiliated Computer Services in 2010 and is now a major player in computer services for businesses. Through Affiliated, Xerox, which generated $22 billion in sales last year, runs corporate technology departments and manages company benefits. At $10, the stock trades at just nine times estimated 2011 profits, which analysts see climbing 14% this year (all prices are through June 3).
WellPoint Stock (WLP). WellPoint, the largest U.S. health insurer, is in a better position to cope with health care reform than most of its rivals. Its immensity—revenues should exceed $59 billion, this year—gives it leverage with health providers. At $77, the stock sells for less than 11 times estimated 2011 earnings.
Chevron Stock (CVX). Profits are gushing for Chevron. Analysts expect earnings for the integrated energy giant to rocket 38% this year. Meanwhile, the company has been selling off refining assets and recently acquired Atlas Energy, which gives Chevron a major foothold in the Marcellus shale formation. At $101, the stock sells for eight times earnings.
Fire Sale on ETFs. The cost of owning—and buying—exchange-traded funds keeps coming down. The annual expense ratio for Focus Morningstar US Market Index (FMU), an ETF that tracks the entire U.S. stock market, and Focus Morningstar Large Cap Index (FLG), a fund that tracks large-company stocks, is 0.05%. The largest (and oldest) ETF, SPDR S&P 500 (SPY), charges 0.09% annually. Meanwhile, a growing number of discount brokers, including Schwab, Fidelity, TD Ameritrade and E*Trade, are letting their clients trade selected ETFs without commissions. And Scottrade customers can trade all 15 FocusShares ETFs, which Scottrade sponsors, for no charge.
0% Balance Transfers. Cut your credit card interest rate to 0% for 21 months by transferring a balance to the Citi Platinum Select MasterCard or Citi Diamond Preferred Card—among the longest offers available. Note that there’s a 3% transaction fee.
Snag It Now: For Free
Free ATM Withdrawals. Open a checking account at Ally, Schwab Bank or E*Trade (all FDIC-insured) for a rebate on fees at any U.S. ATM. None of the accounts requires a minimum balance or charges a monthly fee, and all offer free online bill pay. Or open an account at one of about 1,000 banks and credit unions that belong to the Allpoint network, which includes 43,000 surcharge-free ATMs worldwide.
Manage Your Tech-Files for Free. When you upgrade to a new computer, it probably won’t come with Microsoft Office, and you’ll pay $115 (at Amazon) for the basic suite. Instead, try Google Docs Google Docs or OpenOffice. Both offer basic word processing, spreadsheets and multimedia presentations.
Comp Your Computer Storage. Need a place to store and share files? Windows Live SkyDrive (25 gigabytes of free space) lets you upload music files, documents, photos and videos. Bonus: You can create and edit Microsoft Office files in your SkyDrive browser window and save them directly to your account—no Office download required. You can also use Dropbox (2GB free; $120 per year for 50GB) or Amazon Cloud Drive (5GB free; $20 per year for 20GB).
Get a Steal on Security. You don’t have to pay $70 a year for security software. Avast Antivirus and Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows get good reviews from tech experts and offer basic defenses, including malware protection.
Sign Up with an Online Tutor. Tired of trying to teach your kid the difference between sine and cosine? Ask your school or local library whether it provides access to free online tutoring, such as Tutor.com and SkillsTutor.com. These sites offer tutors in a range of subjects and let students and tutors communicate online.
SEE THIS STORY IN SLIDES: BEST BARGAINS 2011
Best Bargain Sites
Take the Schlep Out of Shopping. Compare prices and find bargains on sites such as Dealnews.com (or follow @dealnews on Twitter for daily alerts), GottaDeal.com, and Amazon.com. DODTracker.composts daily deals from multiple sites.
Cheap Date. A coupon from Restaurant.com gets you discounts of up to 60% at more than 18,000 restaurants. Regular promotions on the site bring the cost down even further, to as little as $8 for a $100 coupon (deals are limited to one coupon per party).
Lowest Airfares. Enter your flight itinerary at Bing.com/travel, and the tool will tell you whether you should buy your ticket now or wait for the price to drop before your trip.
Cheap Car Rentals. Use the “Hot Rate” feature at Hotwire.com to find last-minute discounts in selected cities, or bid on a car at Priceline.com. The car model isn’t revealed until after you book and pay, but you’re guaranteed a vehicle in a general category from a major agency.
Bring the kids, get the freebies. How much do you hate buying a $12 entrée for a picky 6-year-old? If the answer is “a lot,” visit MyKidsEatFree.com or KidsMealDeals.com. These sites point you to restaurants in your area where kids eat free (usually at certain times or on certain days).
Down to Earth Athletic Shoes. Find low prices on athletic shoes online. For example, at Road Runner Sports, New Balance, 993 running shoes (retail price: $145) cost $103 if you join its VIP free-shipping club for $1.99. At Holabird Sports, the same shoes cost $100. For discounts on kids’ shoes, check out Shoesteal.com
Cool Skiing Discounts.A hot summer day is the perfect time to land a discount on ski and snowboarding gear. Check local sports shops for preseason sales, and in early fall, scour Web sites, such as BestSkiSales.com, Liftopia.com, and OnTheSnow.com, for lift-ticket discounts that could knock $20 or more off the daily rate at selected resorts.
Salvage Savings at Home. Look for prices up to 60% off retail for architectural salvage: materials, components and trim removed from demolished or renovated homes. For a directory of stores, visit OldHouseJournal.com and click on “Salvage.” Or snag donated building materials and home goods, new and gently used, for 50% to 90% off retail prices at Habitat for Humanity ReStores. To locate one, visit Habitat.org/restores.
Thrift Shop for Your Home Online. Search online for consigned home furnishings to find stores in your area. At sites such as Consignmentpal.com, you’ll typically find a higher markup than at thrift stores, but the furniture comes from manufacturers, interior designers and high-end retailers as well as homeowners, and the store may even provide design help.
Ditch Full-Price Appliances. For discounts of 20% to 60% on scratch and dent items—blemished or returned (but unused) appliances, electronics, tools, and more—visit a Sears clearance center or ask at an appliance dealer or big-box store.
Sign up for Private Sales. For steep discounts on luxury travel, check JetSetter.com. It holds short-term “flash sales” on high-end hotels and other services. If enough people buy a deal at TripAlertz.com, the rate drops from an already-discounted member price (membership is free). Offerings recently ranged from a stay at a Dominican Republic resort to a rocket-plane ride into space.
Scout Out Student Discounts. Globe Student Discount points students (and parents) to deals on computers, travel, books, student health insurance and software. With Edhance.com, college students register a credit or debit card and use the card to get cash-back deals.
Shop and Save on Amazon. Most orders of $25 or more qualify for free shipping (generally within five to eight days).
With that deal, there is no real need for Amazon Prime, which offers free two-day shipping and access to 5,000 instant movies and TV shows for $79 a year. Why pay for shipping when you can get it free? And the movie selection pales compared with the choices at Netflix.
Swap Your Digs. With HomeExchange.com, enjoy free lodging in houses and apartments at destinations worldwide—as long as you’re willing to share your home, too. The site has more than 40,000 listings in 144 countries. The annual membership fee is $119.
Best Bargain Sites: Tools for You
Deal Alerts. Instead of going to deal sites, get alerts via Twitter by subscribing to deal aggregators such as @dealsplus and @CheapTweet. Or subscribe to Deals on Facebook (now available in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, San Diego and San Francisco through your Facebook account) or Google Offers (in Portland, Ore.; Oakland, Cal.; San Francisco; and New York City). You can get also get an instant discount if you note your location with a mobile phone using Facebook, Foursquare and other mobile social networks. But in exchange for the discount, you give up precious privacy because these coupons show in real-time where you’re located.
Mobile Money Saver: Coupon Sherpa. Use Sherpa to get in-store coupons, which you can show on your phone’s screen at checkout. Available on iPhone only.
Mobile Money Saver: ShopSavvy. You can scan an item’s bar code with your phone’s camera or enter product codes manually, then compare prices at other retailers. Available on Android and iPhone.
Mobile Money Saver: ShopKick. Download this app to find deals at stores, and earn points for gift cards and other rewards just by walking into a store and scanning (or purchasing) products. Available on Android and iPhone.
Mobile Money Saver: Scoutmob. Get discounts at restaurants, coffee shops and stores in your city with this Groupon competitor; if you use the deal, you get incentives for return visits. Available on Android and iPhone.
Mobile Money Saver: HotelPal. Book a hotel room at the last minute or on the go. The app uses GPS to locate the best hotel deals in your area, or you can type in a zip code. Available on Android and iPhone.
Group Savings. Sign up for daily deal e-mails for discounts of up to 90% off goods and services. At Groupon, a certain number of people have to sign up in order for a deal to “tip,” so sharing it on your social networks helps everyone get a markdown. At LivingSocial, persuade three of your friends to buy the deal and you get yours free.
Fun-Fact: Consumers spent $873 million on deal-a-day offers in 2010, and that may surge to $4 billion by 2015.
SEE THIS STORY IN SLIDES: BEST BARGAINS 2011
Let the Deals Come to You
Go the Mile with AAA.. A membership with AAA ($65.50 a year) provides discounts of 7% to 30% on everything from prescription glasses to hotel lodging.
Costco Membership. You pay $50 a year for membership, but low markups combined with coupons make discounts on bulk goods, tires, TVs and even caskets hard to beat.
As for jewelry and large appliances, the warehouse is probably not your best option. Go to a jeweler for diamonds, unless you’re prepared to get an independent appraisal. And Costco’s selection of large appliances is limited— shop the sales at major appliance stores.
Escape to an Outlet Mall. Some luxury and designer items, such as Coach bags, and high-end kitchen goods, such as Le Creuset are great deals at factory stores.
On the other hand, lower-quality outlet-only merchandise, such as Brooks Brothers’ 346 line or Gap factory-outlet clothes may not be worth it.
Rebates from Plastic. Get something back from your credit card. Bank of America’s no-fee Accelerated Rewards American Express card lets you redeem points for cash, travel or merchandise. You earn 1.25 points for every dollar you spend and receive a $50 credit after your first purchase.
Fun Fact: Did you know that credit card users earn more than $11 billion in rewards each year?
Benefit from AARP. For people age 50 and older, join AARP ($16 a year), and get up to 30% off hotel stays, car rentals and prescription drugs.
Ask for a discount. A store just might take less for an item it wants to unload—say, an already-marked-down sale item—or give you a break if you offer to pay cash.
Be willing to walk away.. If you don’t get the price you want, head for the door. Chances are you’ll get a better offer before you hit the sidewalk.
Send in Your Rebate. Only 47% of respondents in a recent poll say they send in rebates always or often.
Make a Tech-Deal. One in seven buyers of major electronic items haggle on price, and half of them win a discount.
Think Outside the Brand-New Box. For affordable electronics, you can find refurbished gadgets for 10% to 75% off, depending on the item. Enter “Special Deals” into the search bar on Apple’s Web site to find iPods, iPads and computers. Recently, a used MacBook Pro cost $899—about 25% off the original price—and included a one-year limited warranty. Amazon also sells used tech items.
Fund a 529 College-Savings Plan. With these state-sponsored accounts, your earnings grow tax-free and escape taxes altogether if you use the withdrawals for qualified educational expenses. If you live in a state that offers a tax benefit for contributions (as do 34 states and the District of Columbia), go with that plan. If not, we like the index-fund portfolios in the direct-sold version of the Illinois Bright Start College Savings Program. For more advice, we picked our favorite 529 plans, state-by-state.
Do the Math on Textbooks for Your Kids. A textbook that costs $100 new will likely cost $75 used, $50 or $60 as an e-book and $40 to $50 as a rental, says Rich Hershman, of the National Association of College Stores. You could resell a new book for about half the price you paid—as long as it hasn’t been replaced by a new edition.
Trim Green Fees. When the recession hit a few years ago, playing a round of golf became a luxury for many. To lure players back, courses offered greens-fee coupons—printed in local newspapers and offered in coupon books or even online (search for a course name plus “discounts”). Now golfers have grown used to the savings, and courses in many areas are stuck in a price war. You’ll typically save $10 to $30 a round.
Best Time to Buy Airfare. Fly on Wednesday and you’ll get the best price, according to FareCompare.com. Traveling over the holidays? You may save if you fly on the holiday itself.
Best Time to Buy Cars. For the best combination of discounted price and good selection on a new car, shop in September, as dealers clear the lots for the newest models. For used cars, you’ll find the best selection and best chance to negotiate in April.
Best Time to Buy Clothing. If new togs haven’t sold in about six weeks, stores start lowering prices. Weekend sales usually start on Thursday, and that’s when the selection is best.
Best Time to Buy Computers. December is a good time of the year to buy a computer; deals range from 15% to 50% off.