Courtesy Freeman (Unsplash)
As founder and chief of ShopSmart magazine (a spinoff publication of Consumer Reports), Lisa Freeman has become one of America’s top experts on everyday savings. In this interview with Bob Love, editor-in-chief of AARP the Magazine, she shares a wide range of money-saving advice, from how to plug hidden money leaks to ways to find the best price and how to haggle for better prices without embarrassment or stress.
Welcome to The First Word from AARP, a series of conversations with the experts exclusively for AARP members. Today on The First Word, personal finance writer Lisa Lee Freeman on easy ways to save money every day
BL: Hello. I’m Bob Love, editor-in-chief of AARP The Magazine and the AARP Bulletin. Welcome back to The First Word from AARP, an interview series exclusively for our members.
I have a feeling you guys are going to be pleased that you listened to this episode because it will likely end up saving you lots of money.
You may have seen Lisa Lee Freeman on any number of morning talk shows sharing her best frugality tips often under the moniker of The Smart Shopping Coach.
Lisa’s training in money mastery includes more than 10 years at the vaunted Consumer Reports, where in addition to writing for the magazine she also founded and served as editor-in-chief of its ShopSmart spinoff publication.
As you might also know, Lisa is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin, where she writes our Live Well for Less articles. Lisa, thank you for joining us today.
LF: You’re welcome. It’s great to be here!
BL: So let's start with specifics. I'm going to put you on the spot. What are some examples from the past few days in which you did a little something different to save a little money?
LF: Oh, I have to think about that for a minute. Well, OK, here's one right off the bat: I downloaded the Stop and Shop app and I saved $10 off my grocery bill just because I tapped on a coupon over the weekend. There you go. A lot of people think that [if] you clip physical coupons or download coupons from various websites that you're going to get all the best deals, but sometimes you have to download the app from your specific supermarket to get the best deals.
So that's one. I have negotiated things over the last, well, that's more in the last few weeks. I'm always haggling for everything. I bought an antique table and I saw a little scratch on it and I got $25 off just for asking. So I'm saving all the time. I'm a maniac. I'm always looking for the angles.
BL: It's a game, right?
LF: It is a game.
BL: I mean, it's a fun game because in the end, you're going to spend less of what you need to spend your money on.
LF: That's right. You really have to sort of look at it as a fun thing — rather [than] as a chore, it's a fun thing. It really is a way of life. It's kind of like a diet. It doesn't work if you do it just for a little while. You have to live it, you know what I'm saying?
BL: Sure, of course I do. My wife and I are great fans of our supermarket loyalty card. We've saved, I think at the end of the year when it comes up, it's like over $1,000. Plus, you rack up these gas points. I mean, just the other day Nicole saved 40 cents a gallon on gasoline.
LF: Oh yeah. That's great.
BL: That's not nothing, as they say.
LF: Well, if you haven't downloaded your supermarket app, that's another way to access coupons that load directly onto your loyalty card. So when you check out at the register, the discounts automatically just come off. That's how I got the $10 from the app. And you don't have to click, you just basically hand it to the cashier or scan it and the money comes right off your balance.
BL: Right. That's what we do. We just show them the card and it's fantastic.
LF: That’s great. Well, I'm talking about the app. Now, that's different than the card.
BL: How does the app work and save me more than the card?
LF: Here's how it works … you go onto the app and it's going to show you all kinds of coupons and deals. Like I said, I got $10 off a $100 purchase. You tap on it and then it automatically loads onto your loyalty card. But you have to load the loyalty card onto the app. So like I said, when you check out the cashier scans the loyalty card off of your app and voilà! You’ve got $10 plus all these additional coupons off. So in addition to the savings by using the loyalty card in the supermarket, you get additional savings with these digital coupons through the app.
BL: Oh, so it's like turbocharging your loyalty card.
LF: Exactly, yeah.
BL: So how much do you think that saving money on a day-to-day basis comes down to attitude versus knowhow and knowing the latest app?
LF: Well, it's really attitude and knowhow, because you really have to keep up with all the different ways that you could save. There's constantly new things coming out. I mean, I just did an article, I'm working on an article right now for AARP on apps, new apps and all kinds of new ways to save.
For example, there's a new cash-back app that will automatically give you cash back wherever you're shopping (when you download it onto your computer) on all kinds of stuff from groceries, movies, restaurants. You have to know about this stuff in order to maximize your savings.
BL: But what if people are turned off by the prospect of lots of web searching and work to find good prices? Are there any tips?
LF: Well, there is.
BL: Work arounds.
LF: There's something called browser apps. And this is what I was referring to just before. It's called a browser app. A lot of people don't know about this. But the browser apps, basically you go to a website. One of my favorites is called Honey. You go to joinhoney.com — and, no, I'm not a spokesperson for the company or anything. I just really like this app. I've been using it for actually years. So it's not like one of these fly-by-night things [where] you have to worry you're going to get a virus or something like that. Basically, you download it onto Chrome, Safari, a browser that you're using — and it's very simple. Just go to the website, click a few things and it's automatically loaded onto your computer. And then when you're shopping, say on Amazon or Walmart.com, it'll automatically pop up when you're checking out and you just click “apply coupons” and boom! It inputs the coupon codes for you. So it's automating your savings so you have no excuse to say you're lazy or you don't know what to do. It literally is that simple.
BL: Folks, if you could see Lisa across the table from me, you would actually understand how into this she gets. She's terrific.
LF: I’m an evangelist for this, for saving money.
BL: You sound like an evangelist.
LF: I really am.
BL: So how much — this is a put-you-on-the-spot question — how much do you think you can realistically save in a week simply by being a knowledgeable, frugal shopper?
LF: Literally hundreds of dollars. Now, it depends on the week, obviously.
BL: So it's a week you go to do your grocery shopping, for like a car …
LF: So let's say you do your grocery shopping, you're using apps. And we'll talk later. I know you've got a question that you wanted to ask me about saving on groceries. There's a million things you can do to save on groceries and not just coupons. But let's say you bought a car. That could be hundreds of dollars. Phone bill. If you are using the wrong cell phone provider or you're using the wrong landline provider, like literally every single week you are going to be saving potentially hundreds of dollars. Certainly, every month you're going to be saving hundreds of dollars. Because just about everything you shop for or spend money on, you could get a discount on.
AARP alone provides dozens of different discounts on just about anything you could spend your money on, from entertainment to eating out to retail. I mean, just by joining AARP, you've already accomplished discounts on many different fronts, but you have to know about them to take advantage of them.
BL: Right. And that's why you join and you get the emails and the memos from us. I mean, you can reduce your Denny's bill if you take the family out to Denny's, all kinds of stuff. So I just read the piece that you're doing for us that we're [publishing] called “Money Leaks” — ways that people are losing money without even realizing it. So let's talk about a few examples of common money leaks and how do you plug them?
LF: OK. Well, obviously credit card interest is the biggest money leak of all for people. And while I didn't go into this in the article, because I think it's pretty obvious, I think that that is really killing Americans. That's the biggest leak of all out there. But let's say you don't have much interest, right? Let's say you've got that under control. You might occasionally get a late fee. That's another money leak. So even if you pay your bills every month, if you even paid them one day late, you could get hit with a charge of $39. They're legally allowed to charge you up to $39 for a late fee, and that doesn't include the interest.
But here's how you could plug that leak. You could call and ask to have that waived. Most of the time, 84 percent of people who ask for a break on credit card fees get that break, especially if you've got a good record with the credit card company. Bank fees are another really big one. If you're paying for a checking account, don't. Find another bank. Find a credit union. The vast majority of credit unions don't charge for checking account fees. ATM charges. If you are with a bank that charges for ATM charges, you don't have to, you could ask for cash back when you go grocery shopping and get that cash for free. No transaction fees.
Some other things, insurance premiums. A lot of us have deductibles that are too low. And just by raising your deductible, you could save hundreds of dollars a year. My deductibles are all $1,000. Assuming you have $1,000 in case something happens to your car, you should have $1,000 deductible. I could go on and on.
Let me tell you one other thing that is amazing. I was visiting my mother‑in‑law recently and she was wasting almost $600 a year. This was a huge money leak for her, on landline service. And guess what? She had an old-fashioned AT&T copper wire landline. And the reception was terrible. The signal was terrible. There was like a buzz in the phone. It was awful.
So I called AT&T to ask them to fix the line. And they're like, we can't. It's an old copper wire, sorry. And then I looked at her bill. I saw she was paying $85 a month. So what I did was, I called her cable company, combined it with her internet, cable and now phone. So it's called a triple play. And canceled her landline service with AT&T. So now she has a landline with her cable company and saves almost $600 a year. That was $85 a month she was wasting.
BL: Is it really considered a landline if you don't have the copper wire?
BL: What if the internet goes down?
LF: If the internet goes down, a lot of these services have batteries. So they'll keep going for many hours after the internet. Well, if the internet goes down, if the power goes down. But if the internet goes down — I've never had a problem when the internet goes down; my phone still works. And I have what's called Voice over Internet Protocol. I haven't had a problem with that, but that's a good question. I mean, a landline obviously is going to work no matter what because it's hardwired. But you know what? My phone's never gone down and I've had Voice over Internet Protocol through my cable company for many, many years. I don't think that's something you should be concerned about.
BL: Good. What are other money leaks?
LF: Oh, I could keep going, Bob.
BL: Let’s keep going on this one.
LF: You want to keep going?
BL: Sure, sure.
LF: All right. Cell services. Did you know that half of all Americans have only wireless service, wireless only? They've completely eliminated their landlines. That saves a ton of money. That's a leak every month, just paying for landline. But I'm old-fashioned; I admit I haven't dropped my landline yet. I have a wireless and I have a landline. But if you're going to keep your landline, think about my mother-in-law example. But let's say you've already dropped your landline and you've got cellular. You probably could still save money. Of course, AARP has discounts. We're all members here. But also just switching, even if you're not an AARP member, looking for consumer cellular, Cricket, there are alternative carriers that could literally be saving you hundreds of dollars. So, you really do want to shop around for cell service. So that could be a money leak right there.
Another money leak. A lot of us like to buy paper, greeting cards, birthday cards, sympathy cards, all kinds of cards. I'm guilty of it. And I just bought my father an $8 card. I hate to admit it, but it was a chimp on the cover and he was singing, I can't remember [what]. It was really funny. It was one of those ones that sings songs. But anyway, I couldn't resist it and that's OK as a splurge. But for the vast majority of the cards that you send out, you should get blank cards and just make a personal note inside saying Happy Birthday or my sympathies or get well or whatever. And that could literally save you $100 a year. Just greeting cards alone is a money leak. Those are expensive.
BL: Where can you find these blank cards, anyplace?
LF: You could find them online. You could find them in stores. Target has some really cute ones. You could go online at target.com. Another secret to saving on greeting cards, my mother's going to love me for saying this. Her favorite place to buy greeting cards is at the Dollar Store. You could pay 50 cents for a card that you might pay $5 for in the supermarket. So if you do want to keep buying happy birthday cards, you could do it. Go to Dollar Stores.
BL: Do you use the loyalty cards at drugstores like Walgreen’s and CVS?
BL: We do, too, and we save a great deal of money, that you sometimes don't even know until you get to the register.
LF: That's right. And at CVS, they're known for their legendary receipts that go on and on and on. And in those receipts are credits and deals and coupons, and make sure you read those and make sure you look at the deadlines, too, because they expire pretty quickly.
BL: We’ve had that problem, too, when things expire in the drawer.
LF: Exactly. But here's a trick. Ring up half your order at CVS, right? Like if you're going to the pharmacy say, have them ring up your order, right? And then you're going to get all of these coupons and then shop for the rest of your stuff. Like, if you're buying toothbrushes and toothpaste and other stuff in CVS, go to the front of the store and use the coupons you got from checking out.
BL: Oh, listen to you.
BL: You might get the ExtraBucks, right?
LF: That's right. You get those ExtraBucks. And then you leave the store and by the time you get back, they're expired or whatever, you forget about them. But when you get them in the store, then use them and check out with those ExtraBucks and all those coupons.
BL: Right. So let's go back to groceries for a minute — probably most families’ largest ongoing weekly out-of-pocket expense. Once upon a time, there were coupons and you had to show them at the register. And we already talked a little bit about how you're a big proponent of the apps. Is there any other ways to approach grocery shopping in a modern, 21st century way to save as much as possible?
LF: Yes, absolutely. And I haven't even talked about all the apps. I mean, I just talked about my supermarket app. There's an app called Flipp, F‑l‑i‑p‑p. And there's another app called Shopular that have all of the flyers right at your fingertips. So you don't have to go through the paper. You could digitally go through all of the flyers.
BL: On your phone, right?
LF: Right on your phone.
LF: And it makes it really, here's the really fun part. You can make, on Flipp, you can make a shopping list and for each item it's going to automatically call up the supermarkets or whatever stores have those items for sale in the flyers. So you don't even have to comb through them. It automatically shows you. So, for example, you're in the market for pork chops. It's going to show you Walmart this week has them on sale and so does A&P and dah, dah, dah. And you could actually plan your shopping using this app. The app also has coupons as well. There are a lot of popular ones. Ibotta is another one that's very popular.
BL: How do you spell that?
LF: Yeah, there's a bunch of them. Actually, in order to use Ibotta, you have to photograph your receipt. I don't like doing that. I can't be bothered with that. I use between my supermarket card and Flipp, that to me is the best. How many apps can you use all at the same time, if you want to just simplify your life?
Here's another tip. So when you're looking through those flyers, whether on paper or online, the first page of the flyer is where you're going to see a lot of these deals that they call … loss leaders. So I mentioned pork chops before. I was thinking about pork chops because they were on sale for $1.99. It was on the front page of the flyer of my supermarket. That's half the price. That's half the price. I'm guessing the store either is breaking even or losing money on that item, and that's when you want to buy.
So you want to look at the fronts of those flyers and buy the items that are those loss leaders and then stash them away. So pork chops last for six months in the freezer. So stash them and stockpile them. You can't buy a year's worth, but you could buy certainly many months’ worth. And also plan your meals around those deals. That rhymes. Plan your meals around the deals. A lot of people do that, you see, like I said, pork chops on sale and then you go to an app like the Kitchen or recipes.com or whatever, plan your meals around those things that are on sale.
Here are few other quick tips for saving at the grocery store. Always try the store brands — and I know a lot of people are doing that now because store-brand quality is getting better and better all the time. When I used to work at Consumer Reports, we used [to] test store-brand products all the time and they were just as good or even better in some cases than the big brands.
Now a lot of people are reluctant to try some store brands. For example, items like ketchup and your basics, maybe even your cereal. You refuse to try something different. But if you don't like it, often stores will let you return it for free; and say, I tried your store brand, don't like it. You'll get a refund. So there's zero risk and you might find a store brand that you really like.
Another tip. My husband will love me for this. He loves buying spices in the ethnic aisle. Goya is one of those brands, a lot cheaper than the big-brand spices. And also shop in ethnic markets for spices, rice. A lot of items are cheaper in the ethnic aisles and ethnic markets. Also, avoid buying precut produce. This is something when I was at ShopSmart magazine, we did a whole study of precut produce and we found that you could pay a markup of as much as 300 or 400 percent when you buy precut produce. This time of year, for example, you're going to see precut squash and all kinds of stuff, precut kale and precut this and precut that.
Yes, it's a convenience. And if it makes a difference between you eating kale and not eating kale, I would say eat the kale, right? Spend the extra premium. But really think twice about buying precut produce. So anyway, I could go on and on. This whole podcast could be about how to save at the grocery store. It's one of my favorite topics.
BL: Well, let’s stay with the grocery store for a minute. Don't foods tend to go on sale in cycles.
BL: My favorite ice cream brand can get heavily discounted say every six weeks or so. Is that true or am I imagining that?
LF: No, that's actually very, very true. And I think most people aren't as aware as you. Good for you that you noticed that it was a six-week cycle. A lot of items go on sale in cycles, six weeks or every three months or whatever. And if there's anything I leave your audience with, it's this one thing and that is timing is the way to save the biggest. That's going to save the biggest money — by timing your purchases.
And that includes the supermarket. That includes cars, appliances, no matter what you're buying. If you time it right, airplane tickets, whatever, it always saves you a ton of money. At the supermarket, things go on sale. As I mentioned, the pork chops, right? A lot of these items that go on sale in cycles, you buy them when they're on sale and you store them.
Special K Red Berries is my favorite cereal. It seems like it hardly ever goes on sale anymore. I see it on sale maybe every few months. Well, it just went on sale. It was $1.99 a box, which was almost half price. That's unheard of. I'd never seen a sale that good. I bought like I don't know how many boxes, 10 boxes. They last like nine months. You have to have storage area for it, but my advice is don't go to the supermarket with a list every week and buy the same things. Go to the supermarket every week and load up on whatever’s on sale, and store it in the pantry or store it in the freezer.
Meats last, like I said, pork chops — sorry, I'm pork chop crazy today, but pork chops last for six months. Hamburger meat lasts for three months. Now, it lasts forever in the freezer. It's never going to make you sick. It's never going to go bad. But the quality and the taste are going to be affected if you leave it in there too long. The thing that lasts the longest, guess what lasts the longest? What kind of meat do you think lasts longest?
LF: Nope. Whole chicken.
BL: Whole chicken.
LF: If you find whole chickens, they go on sale often — you'll find them half price, buy the whole chicken and it'll last for an entire year without losing any quality of taste. Now, you have to have room in your freezer for these things. But anyways, so timing is everything. Remember that.
BL: Do you date things when you freeze things?
LF: Yes, essential.
BL: That’s probably pretty important.
LF: Essential. And you have to really be on top of it because things in the freezer sometimes could get like back in there and you lose track of them. So you really have to kind of stay on top of it.
BL: So I have a confession to make. I mean, Mallomars are not available in the summer months starting in the spring. So my wife stalks the aisles when they're there and on sale. We buy 10 or 12 boxes and they generally get me through until the next cold season. That's my sin, a couple of Mallomars.
LF: So you freeze them?
BL: We don't freeze them. Actually, we put them in the fridge and it lasts pretty well.
LF: That's great. I love those.
BL: But what about … let's go to eating out, a big expense for a lot of families. Do you have some techniques or tools or things to help people save when they go out to eat?
LF: Absolutely. Of course, Groupon is an excellent way to save money eating out because it'll introduce you to new restaurants that maybe you didn't know about. Or restaurants that you do know about, you'll see amazing deals on that. AARP has discounts on restaurants. You can get 10 percent off. I think Outback Steakhouse and a few other restaurants.
BL: Denny's as well, yeah.
LF: You seem to like Denny’s, I think.
b Well, maybe I go there for pork chops.
LF: Oh, OK. Anyway, other ways to save, there's a couple of apps that I like for saving on at food chains. Sometimes finer restaurants are on there as well. One’s called RetailMeNot and one is called Coupon Sherpa. And they’re coupon apps. And mostly people think to use them at retail stores like Michael's and Bed, Bath and Beyond. If you leave the house without coupons for these stores, you always have them on these apps. They're so incredibly convenient. These are mobile apps. So you put them on your smartphone as opposed to on your computer. And they have coupons for restaurants. So that's another way to save on restaurants.
I've got a million tips also on, you know, a lot of people when they get to the restaurant, they end up spending more than they planned. And one of the first rules of engagement at a restaurant is to watch that waiter. Because he's going to come by and the first thing he's going to do is ask you, oh, what would you like? Would you like some water?
BL: Bottled or tap.
LF: Bottled or tap, right. So first they try to make you pay for your water. And then they ask you what drink you want. And a lot of people will just say, oh, I'll have a … I'm at a Mexican restaurant, I’ll have a margarita. But they don't realize that margarita’s $18, right? So a lot of the times they ask you before you've looked at the price, what you want. Say, “Look, I'm going to look at the menu. Give me a minute.” And then order your drinks. The same goes for specials. They'll often recite specials, but they never — did you notice? — they never tell you what the prices of specials are.
BL: No, you do have to ask.
LF: You have to ask. And a lot of people feel embarrassed to ask, like it's crass or something. But to me, how could you give people the specials and not tell them how much they cost? So you should always ask.
BL: Right. Let's talk about Amazon for a minute. I don't know, sometimes I get the feeling that savings at Amazon has peaked and you don't get as much for your Amazon dollar or your Amazon Prime membership as you once did. Are you a professional Amazon shopper?
LF: I'm a professional shopper, period. And I'm specifically … I know a lot about shopping at Amazon. I've been shopping there like many of us from the very beginning. And I have found that prices are not always the lowest at Amazon. Despite the fact that Amazon has prices from — often on many products — multiple sellers for each product.
One of the problems in the past had been that some of the prices … so when you look at the top right-hand corner, you'll see a price. Let's say you're looking at, I don't know, a coffee maker, and it will say $39.99. And then you look. You have to scroll down to see other sellers that may have that item for less. So in the past, that was a problem because there may have been lower prices offered by other sellers that weren't featured — that you had to sort of know to scroll down and look at.
But in general, that's not as much of a problem. But what is a problem, is that in many cases, they're not the cheapest. And I spoke to the president of a company called PriceBlink recently. PriceBlink is a browser app. So you load it onto your computer.
BL: Is that PriceBlink, like blink your eyes?
LF: Yup, like blink your eyes. And if you load this onto your computer, it will automatically scroll down and give you the prices on other websites. So let's say you're looking at that coffee maker on Amazon. A little bar will come up across the top of your page, click on it, and it will show you what the price of that item is at eBay, on Walmart and on a lot of other websites. So you can see, is Amazon the lowest? And yes, often Amazon will be the lowest, but not always. And when it isn't the lowest … this guy told me he’s seen some instances where you could save 50 percent by not buying on Amazon. And I think one mistake that people make if you're a Prime member is that you get lazy. You say, “Hey Alexa, order me blah blah,” and you don't … compare prices.
BL: One-click shopping.
LF: That's right. One-click shopping is anathema to a bargain hunter like myself. Because it's like … my husband's like, “I'm going to one click it.” That's when he's threatening me. I'm like, “No. Let me compare prices.”
So in addition to one clicking, this voice shopping is actually making us less able or willing. We're more lazy when we do that. So we're not comparing prices, but there are ways to automate this price comparing. So PriceBlink. And then there's another browser app called InvisibleHand, which is the same type of thing, where you click on it and down comes coupons, down comes price comparisons. So you don't even have to click around and compare prices. This thing does it for you.
BL: So these apps, are these for a desktop?
LF: Oh, no, no, laptop. Anytime you're using the Chrome or Safari browser.
BL: On your phone, too?
LF: It doesn't work on your phone. There are comparable mobile apps, but they don't work the same way.
BL: So what about the whole DIY subset of frugal living? Are you a big believer in that, making your own chicken broth, making your own cleaning supplies?
LF: Well, my husband would laugh if I said I made my own chicken broth, because I don't cook. He does all the cooking. But I will make salad dressing because I did a segment for The Dr. Oz Show. … I was an investigative reporter there, and we did a big investigation on salad dressings. And when I was doing this report, I was at the supermarket a lot reading ingredients. And I could not believe what was in salad dressings — artificial colors and preservatives and flavors and texturizing agents. And some of them actually said no HFCS, high fructose corn syrup, on the front of the label. Or it would say no artificial colors. But then you'd turn it around and it had artificial flavors or artificial that. So to me, not only is it cheaper to make your own salad dressing, it's better for you. So my advice is DIY it as much as you can.
The other thing that I like to DIY is cleaners. And the reason … and that's a big trend. I just was looking at an article in the New York Times. Apparently, it's a huge trend. More and more people are DIYing their cleaners. My attitude about cleaners is you only want to bring out the big guns when you need them. If you've got a sick child or somebody’s sick in the house, you want to use bleach. You want to use the heavy-duty cleaners that you buy at the supermarket. But for everyday spills, why bring out like nuclear weapons when a shotgun will do? So use a DIY cleaner. It may not work as well or be as strong, but it's good enough for everyday cleaning.
BL: Tell me a recipe for a DIY everyday — keep in the kitchen, underneath the sink — household cleaner.
LF: OK, here's one that I like, a glass cleaner. This works really well. Half a teaspoon of dishwashing liquid; I use Ivory. Three tablespoons of vinegar, and two cups of water. Mix it up in a nice container. And then I actually use newspapers, old newspapers, to wipe it off. So I spray it out of the bottle onto the window and I wipe it off with newspapers. And it works, to me, better than the store-bought window cleaners. And it saves me and I'm not buying paper towels, which is a big waste. So that's my favorite recipe. But there's a million of them. You can go online.
BL: So let's get onto the subject of haggling.
LF: Oh, that's my favorite.
BL: Now, you like it, right? You rise to the occasion. You enjoy it. It's a little bit of combat as well as being smart.
LF: It’s a sport.
BL: And a sport. So how about for us shy people who don't like to haggle? What are your tips for us?
LF: Well, my tip is first, get over it. Sorry, Bob. But my husband's the same way. He negotiates multimillion-dollar contracts at work. But if I'm in a store haggling with a salesperson, he is mortified. He runs for the exits. He literally is out the door. He can't handle it. But to me it's like … think about haggling like this: There are hidden discounts all over the place. It's like busking. It's like you are leaving piles of money all over the place. Think about it that way. And then that might motivate you a little bit. And I have negotiated for everything under the sun. I've negotiated in department stores. I've negotiated in TJ Maxx. I've negotiated at outlet stores. I've negotiated anywhere. You could do it anywhere.
BL: All right. So you're moving your cart up to TJ Maxx, up to the register, and they have $29.99. What do you say?
LF: This dress is missing the belt. Or this button is falling off. Or I bought this little jewelry box and it had a little scratch on it. “Oh, OK. We'll take off 10 percent.”
BL: Do you do it at the register?
LF: Yes, and sometimes you don't even need a manager. The cashier will just do it for you. So if you see anything that's damaged there in any way, missing something or slightly damaged … The only time I found that they're less willing to do it is if it's got a red tag on it, which means it's final — or yellow, final markdown.
BL: So what's your language? Do you say things like, well, could you do any better since this is damaged?
LF: Yeah. Well, that's the advice to not say specifically, ask for a specific discount. But at TJ Maxx, I've found it's usually 10, no more than 20 percent or 15 percent. Usually, it's 10 percent. So I'll say, “Hey, could you give me an extra 15 or 20 percent off for this scratch?” And they'll often come back and just give you the 10 percent. But you never know. Depends on who's at the register.
BL: So you're negotiating the negotiating, right? You're negotiating the discount that you asked for — so that if you asked for 15, you might get a 10.
BL: OK, pretty good.
BL: The holidays are coming up, fast approaching. There's a lot of buying that goes on in all parts of our lives. Do you have any strategies for saving money in and around the holidays?
LF: Black Friday, two words. Remember those two words, Black Friday. A lot of people don't realize how powerful Black Friday is in terms of the retailers. They salivate all year round waiting for Black Friday. They're actually producing special products for this shopping holiday. And you really … I mean, if you take advantage during the Black Friday period, you are going to save money. But what you have to do is prepare for Black Friday.
So like a month in advance. Like right now, we're in September still. Starting in a couple of weeks, I'm going to start making a list of things I want to buy for Black Friday and pricing the items out, so that I'll know a good price when I see one when Black Friday comes. You can't assume that everything is the best price. Obviously, you have to be smart about it and compare prices and know what you're looking for.
Also, if you're going to buy a television set, for example, or a computer — those are two great things to buy during the Black Friday period. Just know what you want. Because if you're buying an iPad, you're buying an iPad, right? You just want a particular model with a certain amount of memory or whatever. But if you're buying a television set, they actually roll out special models just for Black Friday. So what you want to do is look at the features that you want. You may not be able to get the top-rated model in Consumer Reports, but you may be able to get all the features that you want in a particular set on Black Friday, for a set that is being promoted specifically for Black Friday.
BL: Well, are you one of those people that are pressed up against the doors on Friday morning at eight o'clock when the door is open?
LF: No, I am not.
BL: OK. But in general, do you like to go to stores and shop around? I mean, it's also fearsome how many retail stores are closing down these days.
LF: I know, it’s sad.
BL: But are you a proponent of actually go to the store rather than online?
LF: I am.
LF: I'll tell you why. Because here's a secret: The best prices are not online. The best prices are in stores. And I'll tell you why. The reason is that retailers, especially higher-end retailers, don't want the prices advertised — low, low prices advertised. So when they're trying to unload things, they don't want … if you've ever tried to shop TJ Maxx or Marshall's online, you'll see there's a very limited selection. I think TJ Maxx doesn't even sell online. I'm trying to remember, is it Marshall's or TJ? One of them doesn't even sell products online. They just have listings of them.
And the reason is retailers don't … so let's say [there’s] a luxury retailer that sells watches, sells watches for $1,000. I'm just making this up. This is just an example. So they don't want their watch to be on sale for $500 online. Instead, they'll give it to TJ Maxx, and TJ Maxx will sell it. So there's no transparency there that you could buy their product for that much of a discount.
So you're going to see really good deals at discount stores like TJ Maxx, Marshall's. It's a crapshoot in these stores, but there's a reason for that. Like I said, the upscale beauty companies, clothing companies, houseware companies — they don't want those prices out that very transparently online.
Outlet stores are another great place. Now I just did a column on that. And a lot of retailers — for their outlets — are producing specific merchandise that's separate and different than you'll find in retail. But for the times when they're selling things that didn't sell in the stores or are overruns, you will see unbelievably low prices that you will never see anywhere else, not online, nowhere else.
BL: But does separate and different mean the quality is the same as what they have in the store? Or do they produce things at a cheaper cost to them when they know it's heading for the outlet stores?
LF: Well, as I said in my column, I did a lot of research on this. I actually interviewed somebody who used to work for companies that produced clothing for the outlets. And the not-so-secret secret is that they're producing the vast majority of the stuff in the outlets for the outlets. Now, that's not to say that the stuff is substandard. They have a label to live up to because most of the brands that are sold in the outlets are good, quality brands. They're not low-end brands. They're high-end brands.
People go to the outlets not to shop at low end — I'm not going to mention any retailer names. They're going there. They want to get Armani for half price. Or they want to go to Saks Fifth Avenue and get their label for half price. And they have to maintain a certain level. Their reputation’s on the line. If they're selling schlocky things, that doesn't do them any good. So there's a certain level of quality that you're going to see at outlets. That said, it's not going to be the same that you see in the retail stores.
BL: How so?
LF: Well, for example, let's say Coach; I'll name a name, Coach. They have bags that they produce for their stores — their regular retail stores, and they have separate bags that they sell at their outlets. When I was at ShopSmart, we actually bought a whole bunch of stuff at the outlets and we bought a whole bunch of stuff, comparable stuff, at retail places. And this was the case in every store we looked at, but I'm just going to use Coach for a minute.
So they actually had bags that looked very similar in the outlets to the ones that you'll see in the retail stores — very similar. But the leather was different, not as nice in the outlet. The hardware was different. The stitching was different. And in some cases, the bags were made in different countries than the bags in the retail stores.
BL: So interesting.
LF: Here's something I learned from the production expert I interviewed for this article that I did for you guys. And that is, one of the most expensive parts of producing something is designing it. So once you've got the pattern, right? You could just keep producing them. And maybe for the first run, you do the retail — that's the retail run, the regular retail run, which is the higher-end materials. And then for the outlet stores, you use lower-end materials, but you still had the same pattern. So why not use them? Just put lower-end materials on them. That's sort of the difference right there.
BL: That’s great, Lisa. Thank you so much. I want to end, though, before we let you go, with a lightning round. Give me your best money-saving tricks for buying the following. A good cup of coffee.
LF: Oh, well, I would buy discounted gift cards for Starbucks and Peet’s and a bunch of other coffee chains at websites like Gift Card Granny and Raise.com. And you can get 10 to 15 percent off.
BL: Wow. Ding. A plane ticket for vacation.
LF: My main tip is: Be flexible. Depending on when you fly and which airport you fly, it could save you hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
BL: OK. Ding. A large bottle of ibuprofen.
LF: Oh, obviously the warehouse clubs. But just be sure you look at the expiration dates, and that you can take all of those ibuprofens before you end up having to throw them out.
BL: How about a 12 pack of paper towels?
LF: Same thing, the warehouse clubs. But here's a little trick: Join a warehouse club with a friend so you can split the cost. And also you could split all those paper towels, because who has room for all those?
BL: How about tickets to an upcoming concert?
BL: All right. There you go.
LF: They have discounts.
BL: And then finally, a new car.
LF: A new car. My tip is: Buy now. The fall and the early winter are a great time to buy cars, because that's when the new-model-year vehicles are coming in, and they want to get rid of the old models. So now's a great time to buy. We're recording this in September, and by the time December rolls around, the prices are going to be … they're going to keep getting lower. Your selection, though, is going to get skinnier as you get closer to the end of the year. So now's a sweet spot, right now — September, October into November.
BL: Fantastic. Shop now, folks. Lisa, we're out of time. Thank you again so much. What a wonderful conversation. It's a good moment to remind you that AARP makes a wide range of carefully chosen discounts available to members. Each is designed to offer real value in key areas of your life, including all of the things we talked about today — travel, dining, entertainment, shopping, and more. And you can go to AARP.org/benefits to learn more. We hope you enjoyed this episode of The First Word. Until next time, this is Bob Love wishing you successful savings and a wonderful week ahead.