When a Sale Isn’t a Steal

I watched madness break out at a department store the other day. Shoppers crowded the Valentine’s Day sale aisle, frantically snatching up items like pink and purple plastic dishes with kissy lips on them and T-shirts printed with candy hearts. I just tried to stay out of the way.

Surely most of the stuff these women bought can only be used a couple times a year, at most. It begged the question, “Could there be such a thing as a bad sale?"

For me anyway, the answer is yes. Just like there really are stupid questions, sometimes there are stupid sales. On the surface, sales seem like they should be good just by nature. You’re getting a product at a discount, right? But if you pay $50 for an item that is normally $100 but that you wouldn’t have purchased at regular price—then the sale has cost you $50. Meaning you’ve just fallen victim to a store’s marketing scheme.

So how do you tell when a discount really is a deal? As a rule of thumb, buy only the things you need—or for which the benefits outweigh the costs. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Like a lot of people, I eat cereal for breakfast most days. While cereal—name-brand cereal, anyway—certainly isn’t cheap, there are so many types that there’s always something on sale. If Cheerios are two for $5 one day when they’re normally $4.50, I can get them at nearly half price. The same goes for all kinds of other grocery goods, from coffee (that’s the stuff you buy in the store, not at Starbucks) to meat (stock up on chicken when chicken’s on sale, beef when beef’s on sale) to paper towels and toilet paper.

(Of course, there’s another option. Buy generic and you’ll save every time, often get very similar quality and don’t have to bother looking for sales or clipping coupons.)

Here’s another example. For a long time now, I’ve had my eye out for a nice, warm winter parka. I’ve been getting along just fine wearing layers under my wool coat, mind you, but I want something I can snuggle up in on the weekend, wear when I’m working in the yard (my coats aren’t exactly machine-washable) and that’s preferably waterproof.

If I see one on sale that meets all my qualifications—good price, good quality, good fit, etc—I’m going to buy it. If not—or if I get in a tight place where I can’t shell out any extra money—I’ll keep waiting and make do with what I have for the rest of the winter.

My point is, you can still shop sales, but be selective. Don’t let this week’s coupons determine everything that goes on your shopping list—compare you’re shopping list to this week’s coupons and clip accordingly. For more tips on making do with less (and learning how to save up to $20,000 a year in the process), take a look at the “Give Yourself a Raise” tool in our free Financial Toolkit. And don’t forget to visit us on the Web, where you can sign up for a complimentary debt analysis , find information about our upcoming community workshops and get even more advice.

And remember: When in doubt, just don’t buy it. Hey, if you’ve been getting along just fine without it so far, why mess with what works?

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