As we all struggle to navigate what may be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it's more important than ever for us to be smart and savvy shoppers. Maybe you already pride yourself on being a real bargain hound and finding good deals. But do you — yes, even you — sometimes drop the ball? Since that can happen to the best of us, the following tips can serve as reminders about how to stay sharp while the economy's in the tank.
1Be a knowledgeable Internet shopper. Visit the Web sites of your favorite stores and clothing catalogs and look for online-only sales. Click on any link that says "sale," "new markdowns" or "final clearance." It's not at all uncommon to spot dresses or suits that used to cost $100 or more lurking in final clearance sections for $19.99 or even $9.99.
2Look for additional online discounts. When making purchases online, stay on the lookout for areas where you can enter a "promotional code," "discount code" or "coupon." If you spot such an option, open a Web browser in another window and do a quick Internet search for the retailer's name along with the same catch phrase used on that retailer's Web site. Your search could yield a coupon code that could help you save even more.
3Distinguish between deals and duds. Check out Web sites such as BizRate.com, Shopping.com and PriceGrabber.com as you're shopping around to get a sense of how much items should cost. The two to four minutes it might take you to do this can help you avoid costly missteps.
4Figure out just when to hunt for bargains. Your favorite stores will have several big sales throughout the year. With a tiny bit of advance planning, you can time things so you shop only during the best sales. If you don't feel like monitoring the ads, call the stores directly and ask for details.
5Don't forget about outlet malls and stores. Some outlet stores offer fabulous discounts on high-quality clothing and other items, while others sell merchandise at prices higher than you would find at regular retailers. You also may encounter items made specifically for outlet stores that can be of inferior quality. All of that said, outlet stores frequently offer serious bargains on "irregular" garments, which often have defects that are barely noticeable.
6Browse the aisles at discount retailers. Stores like TJ Maxx, Ross Stores, Marshalls and Target sell oodles of items that are quite nice — and inexpensive. These stores are especially good if you're looking for clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry, watches and kitchen or other household items.
7Discover the magic of thrift stores. Shopping at thrift stores takes patience and time, so you shouldn't go when you're in a big hurry. But you can find beautiful suits, jackets, dresses, sweaters, kids' clothing and toys there for literally pennies on the dollar. Sometimes you'll even spot brand-new items with the tags still attached.
8Be really thrifty. If you would rather get those jeans for $1 instead of $5, you probably can. Many thrift stores offer regular weekly deals. For instance, all clothes tagged with stickers of a certain color may cost 99 cents on a certain day of the week. Call up the thrift stores near you and ask about special sales.
9Beware of overspending when money is tight. Let's face it: These are stressful times. Are you in the habit of engaging in "retail therapy" when you're feeling blue? If so, this is probably a good time to confront that habit head on and kick it if you can. Especially if you suspect that your spending might be out of control, it's important to examine what's happening.
10Know when outside help might be warranted. If your spending is so out of control that you can't wrestle with the problem alone, seek counseling or therapy, or attend a Debtors Anonymous meeting. To find meeting times and locations, visit the Debtors Anonymous Web site (debtorsanonymous.org/) and click on "Find a DA Meeting."
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at email@example.com.
Sources: Consumer World (www.consumerworld.org); Debtors Anonymous (debtorsanonymous.org/)