Picture this: It's Saturday morning, and you're scrolling through your Facebook news feed. There, amid your pals' baby pictures and funny videos, a new item pops up at the top of your feed — a one-day, 40 percent–off sale promoted by a big-name clothing retailer.
A quick search of that same company's Twitter feed yields a coupon giving you a $10 discount for every $25 spent in the store. On the way to cash in on this deal, you stop at a favorite coffee shop, check in on your smartphone with the popular Foursquare app and immediately get 10 percent off the next latte as a reward for your 10th check-in.
If you're over 50 and an Internet user, you are probably no stranger to Facebook — according to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of adults 50 through 64, and 43 percent of those 65 or older, now use a social networking site. The average American over 50 spends nearly 2-1/2 hours per day on social media. As users flock to the new media, marketers follow, and companies are feverishly experimenting with ways to penetrate this vast ocean of potential customers. Brands and businesses sank nearly $5 billion into social media advertising in 2012 to help push their wares, promote sales and reach out to millions of consumers who've added social networks to their daily media diet. Little wonder that a 2012 study from marketing researchers posited that heavy social media use can inhibit self-control and encourage you to spend more money.
In other words, your virtual friends and followers can be the enemies of your pocketbook. But social media is also a powerful tool for saving: It facilitates the search for money-saving deals and frugal-living tips, because it harnesses the collective wisdom of a digitally networked world. You just need to:
1. Love the 'like'
What's with all those Facebook requests to "like" some store or product you've never heard of? Thanks to the "liking" habits of your social media pals, you've been caught up in a corporate charm offensive that might be worth a click. On Facebook, most retailers, whether they're physical stores or online hubs, have pages on which they post information about new products and sales. "Liking" a store or brand will keep you informed of coupons, clearances and buy-one-get-one deals, as when, in early October, clothing outlet Old Navy posted a 50 percent–off sale good for one day only on its Facebook page. In one study, 67 percent of customers said they'd be willing to "like" a store or brand page on Facebook in exchange for 25 percent savings.
2. Tweet for dollars
Older users have been slower to adopt the microblogging service Twitter — why, after all, would a noncelebrity need to send thousands of strangers teeny 140-character messages several times a day? But think of Twitter as a constantly updating news ticker: The only information you see in your feed comes from the tweets of other users you follow. Follow money experts like @JeanChatzky and @JaneBryantQuinn to get their tips and advice. You can also follow brands and stores, which can pay off in unexpected ways. (Case in point: In September, retailer Lands' End gave away dress shirts to users who retweeted messages from its #MadeToWork campaign.)
3. Search and save
Specific information on Twitter is organized using hashtags (a keyword — or words — preceded by a "#" sign), and the search function is your best friend. Want the latest chatter on how to save money? Search topics such as #SavingMoney, #YourMoney, #Frugal and #Bargain. Hashtags are also used on the photo-sharing app Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and on Pinterest, a virtual corkboard where users (a third of whom are 50 or older) post images of stuff they like. Pinterest is especially popular among women, who make up more than 70 percent of users, so expect to find an abundance of pages devoted to women's style, fashion, cooking and more. On Pinterest you build your personal corkboard around your interests; companies use it to create virtual storefronts to advertise their wares. Following the stores and brands you like can give you a jump on coupons and notifications of clearance events.
4. Check in
Other social networking sites help you unlock discounts when you check in at restaurants, coffee shops and other stores around town, which is a main function of Foursquare. On one hand, Foursquare is a social review site: Like rivals Yelp, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor, it's a trove of user-generated tips and recommendations. Looking for the best pizza in a new neighborhood, or a good, cheap hardware store? See which ones people have praised on Foursquare. On the other hand, checking in at whatever store or restaurant you're in — using the app's GPS capabilities — serves as a digital loyalty card; the more you use Foursquare, and the more times you check in at one particular place, the better the chance of being presented with in-app coupons for 10 percent off (or more) on your next pizza or coffee. What's more, Foursquare learns what you like to do and at what locations you typically check in. Over time, that translates to savings through Foursquare's Local and Promoted Updates, which you can access when you open Foursquare on your phone. If a restaurant in your neighborhood is having a special, you'll find out through Foursquare; if a store you frequent is offering discounts or coupons, Foursquare will let you know.
5. Pass the hat
Social media services typically have apps for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, but there are also several stand-alone mobile apps that employ the collective power of your different social networks to save you money. Take SmartyPig, for instance, an online banking service that lets you set up a specific financial goal — say, saving for a long-delayed vacation or a new television — and share that goal with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Through those social networks, your friends can provide encouragement and even donate directly to your SmartyPig account. That means extended-family members can easily pitch in for a grandchild's crib, a kid's first car or your replacement dishwasher.
6. Make a big deal
Users of the online service Slickdeals can share information on ways to save money via a massive online forum. Slickdeals isn't so much a social network — it's more a Web-enabled savings community. With 18 different forums and 10 million users, the site gives you access to a sprawling network of frugal folks who post websites of stores promoting sales as well as coupon codes they've used. Use the search bar at the top of the home page, or check out the Frontpage Deals & Coupons. Clicking on any deal directs you to a page that explains how to cash in. It's free to join, and all the information is free to view.
7. Bring home the bacon
Finally, Grocery Gadget, a $2.99 download, works as a kind of miniature social network to use within your immediate family. With Grocery Gadget you can write grocery lists inside the app or on the free Web portal; your information syncs effortlessly with that of fellow smartphone wielders in the family who also have the app installed. Now everyone has the week's grocery list, and as items are checked off, each person will instantly know what's yet to be purchased. Reuse and update the list from week to week so you'll know exactly what you need, which should help avoid waste and allow you to shop more efficiently. You'll never find yourself coming home with too many cartons of milk.
Finding savings through social media typically requires divulging a certain amount of personal information — either biographical or geographical. That exposes you to a level of risk, as fraudsters can use this information to target you for identity theft or email scamming schemes. But you can mitigate the risk by tinkering with websites' and apps' privacy settings.
• Facebook: On Facebook you can manage who contacts you and who can view your profile page; just establish privacy settings. Select "Friends" to ensure that only your Facebook friends will see your status updates and what pages you've "liked." You can also control the visibility of individual posts and select who can see photos and posts tagged with your name.
• Twitter: Inside Twitter's security and privacy settings, make sure the box "Add a location to my Tweets" isn't checked, to prevent others from knowing you're not home when you're sending Twitter messages. This information could compromise your security while traveling. To prevent others from seeing your Twitter feed, check the "Protect my Tweets" box.
• Foursquare: Foursquare needs to know your location in order to work, but you can limit who else sees that by checking in privately each time and opting out of the special "Here Now" list that tells you who is at the same location when you check in. Also: You need only your first name to use Foursquare. You're not completely anonymous, but it's easier to avoid revealing who you are.
Privacy and security settings vary by carrier and device, but in general, here's a quick guide to safe smartphone use when on social media.
For iPhone users: Go to "Settings," then "Privacy," then "Location Services." From there, you can control which installed apps know of your location via GPS. Leaving "Weather" checked on is useful, but turn Twitter's "Location Services" off to hide your coordinates.
For Android users: If you don't want social networking apps using GPS to reveal your location, go to your main system settings and look for the option called "Location and Security." Under the heading "My Location" at the top of the screen, uncheck the two boxes and voilà: You're invisible.
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