I have a pretty systematic strategy for finding the best deals on everything we buy. Here are 9 steps to get the best prices on everything in your budget.

Originally published September 23, 2014

I very rarely pay full price for anything.  I usually pay much, much less than full price. I realized that I have a pretty systematic strategy for finding the best deals on everything we buy. I have always shopped with this strategy, but it was especially helpful during the years we were working on our enormous student loan payoff goal. It’s an awesome way to keep our family’s expenses super low.

The steps are numbered because the order helps to really pay the absolute least possible.  Of course, depending on your situation and preferences, you can skip steps too.

1. Anticipate Needs: Keep a List

This is KEY!  Getting the best deals often requires patience.  The more time you have to scope out sales and wait for the perfect deal, the more money you will save.  Buying something in a hurry or on a whim is when you end up spending more than you wanted.

I keep a running list of things that I need, from random kitchen gadgets to the clothes each of my kids need for the next year or two.  I plan in advance what I would like to give for Christmas and birthday gifts.  I keep an actual written list in my purse so I always have it.

2. Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open and It Might Be Free

Good things come to those who wait.  Being patient has paid off for us in the way of free items more than once.  When I am seriously looking for a big ticket item, I peruse the free section of Craigslist.org and look at emails from Freecycle.org.  Sometimes I casually mention what I’m looking for to a friend or two at church.  It’s often a win-win situation, as someone is looking to get rid of something that is just what we are looking for.

Last year, we got a nice, working dishwasher through Freecycle from someone who was remodeling their kitchen.  I have been longing for a dishwasher for a long time, but didn’t want to spend the money to purchase one yet.  The dishwasher we got on Freecycle was the first dishwasher we have ever had in 8 years of marriage.  It has been a huge blessing!

3. Know Your Market and Have a Target Price

If you want to get an awesome deal, you have to know what an awesome deal looks like!  Know what the regular price of your item is.  Doing a little research online can help you out, especially for big ticket items.  Browsing Amazon can give me a pretty good idea of what a normal price is on a lot of different items.

Decide what you want to spend on the items on your list and set that as your target price.  Knowing ahead of time what you are willing to spend on something helps you pass up the deals that aren’t that great.  If you plan to shop at garage sales, it’s nice to be able to tell the seller, “I’m looking for a dresser that’s under $10.”

4. Browse Garage Sales and Thrift Stores

It’s no secret that buying secondhand is one of the best ways to save money.  While we aren’t willing to buy everything secondhand, used works fine for the majority of our purchases.

Garage sales are hit or miss.  You won’t find everything on your list (and you’ll probably find some treasures that aren’t on your list), but when you do find something, not only is the price negotiable, it will also likely be the lowest price you’ll find.  Clothing at yard sales and garage sales almost without fail will be priced lower than thrift stores.

The advantage that thrift stores have is they have a consistent schedule and plenty of inventory.  What they have is always changing, but you know that they will have a wide selection.  Most thrift stores have daily or weekly deals categories and markdowns.

5. Shop Used Items Online

Buying used items online is often a little more expensive than what you’d pay at a yard sale or thrift store.  The difference is the convenience factor and the search feature.  To find something on your list at a garage sale takes more luck and legwork that searching online, which is why the price is cheaper.  Some great places to look online are:

  • Local Facebook Buy/Sell/Trade or Garage Sale-type pages
  • Craigslist.org
  • Classified ads through your local newspaper or Penny Saver
  • Ebay (There are lots of NEW items on Ebay too)
  • Online Consignment (like ThreadUp)

6. Regularly Peek at the Clearance Section

When you’re in Target or other favorite stores, take a peek at the clearance section when you are already in the store.  Be sure to have your list in hand, otherwise you will just spend and not save!  I wait until items are marked down to at least 50% before I even look.  Remember that even if it looks like a great deal, if you don’t need it or haven’t budgeted for it, it’s not a good deal.  That being said, I have found lots of items from my list on clearance.  Good things come to those who wait!

7. Watch for Sales

If you can’t (or don’t want to) find the item second hand, keep your eyes peeled for sales.  Depending on what you’re looking for, there may be a certain time of year that is better than others.  I’ve found great Lands’ End swimsuits at dirt cheap prices for myself and my kids during the fall and winter seasons.

Retailers love making every holiday into a shopping holiday.  Take a peek at the ads on holiday weekends if you’re looking for something specific.  Don’t be fooled into buying that’s something that’s a good deal, if you’ve got time to wait for a great deal.

If you’ve looked at Black Friday ads in the past, you probably have a good idea of the kind of items that will be the store’s doorbuster sales.  If you have tools or kitchen appliances on your list (or your gift list), waiting until November for your purchases will save you money.  Remember most Black Friday deals online are just as good as in the store, so avoid the crowd and stay home with your family!

8. Avoid Paying Shipping

Because I live in the boonies, I look for great deals online.  Even if you live close to shopping areas, running from store to store to find a great deal might not be your idea of a good time.  While shopping online can be convenient, it also usually comes with a charge for shipping.  I do whatever I can to avoid paying shipping.

I always compare prices online and factor in shipping.  Buying on Amazon is often a no-brainer with Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping.  You can get a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime or if you’re a college student, you can  get free two-day shipping with Amazon Student.  For individual retailers, I search for free shipping codes, wait for a free shipping deal, or sometimes it’s worth it to meet minimum purchase requirements.

9. Always Use Rebate Sites

For online shopping, I never complete my order without going through a rebate or cash-back site.  You can even get cash back shopping on some categories on Ebay and Amazon.

Rakuten is my favorite cash back site. When you sign up for Rakuten and make your first $30 purchase, you’ll get a bonus $30 bonus.  It’s amazing how fast that cash back adds up.

For many things on my list, I don’t move past step #4.   As a need becomes more urgent, I will move down to other steps.  Sometimes I go out of order, but with my target price still in mind.  The key to making this strategy work well for you is to anticipate your needs.

Some Real-Life Examples

I could talk your ear off about the deals I’ve found on this and that by following the strategy I outlined, but I’ll try to keep it brief so you can go make your list and start looking out for great deals.  Here are just a few of my real-life examples from when I originally published this in 2014.

New Suit

Since my husband wears a suit six days a week, his two suits are getting well-worn.  For a while, I’ve had “new suit” on my radar.  Whenever I’m in a thrift store, I check the suits.  His size is pretty rare (he’s super tall), so I have never actually found a suit in his size, but that doesn’t stop me from looking.  Taking a minute to look when I’m already in the store is not a burden, and if I ever do actually find one, the money I save will be well worth my time and diligence.

I looked around online and found that regular department stores don’t carry his size.  He is the average height of an NBA player, so we are stuck with shopping at specialty stores.  As the need became more urgent, we looked at the Labor Day sales and decided to head out and look in-store.  We went to the closest Jos A Bank store where they were having a “Buy One, Get Three Free” sale (keep in mind the cheapest suit is $650).  They only had 4 suits that were his size and none of them were colors or fabrics we liked, but at least we learned what suits fit well so we could continue our search online.

I took a peek at Ebay, knowing that finding a suit coat and pants together that would both fit, would be near impossible.  I was delighted to find someone selling brand new Jos A Bank suits for well-below retail.  There were even several suits in my husband’s size!  I got a $900 suit for just $100.  I need to tailor the unfinish edge of the pants, but at that price it’s well worth learning a new sewing skill.

Dress Shoes

After paying over $100 for a pair of new dress shoes for my husband back in law school, I wanted to do whatever I could to avoid doing that again.  I have “men’s dress shoes” on my list whether my husband has a current need for them or not (his size isn’t changing).  If I can avoid the situation where he needs shoes immediately, I can save a lot of money buying secondhand shoes that are still in great condition.

I always walk by the men’s shoes when I’m in the thrift store.  Several times I have found shoes in his size that are in wonderful condition for $3 to $10.  Sometimes they’ve even been half off!  I also found a great deal on Ebay.  I search for a brand, style, and size that he already knew fit well.  They were very lightly used and as the only bidder, I bought them for $10 with free shipping.


We do our best to anticipate big needs, as well as small needs.  When I was pregnant with #3, we started looking into buying a minivan, as our car would not fit three car seats in the back.  Since we started looking with plenty of time to spare, we could go about our search without any pressure and wait for the best deal.  We casually mentioned to friends that we were looking to upgrade our car to fit our growing family and the van practically came right to us!  A friend brought us together with the seller and it worked out perfectly for both of us.  We found a van in great condition with the right price tag and we didn’t set foot on a car lot!

How About You

  • What are your best strategies for saving money on everyday purchases?
  • Do you keep a list and shop ahead for future needs?


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