8 Tips to Be a Smarter Consumer
Get better customer service via social media
Use Twitter and other social media to complain and get results -- fast.
Have a beef with a business? A public conversation about your complaint on Twitter may yield more satisfying results than a phone call to the company. Use these tips to make the most of the exchange.
Search Twitter to find out whether the company has a Twitter presence, and direct your tweets to its account, preferably a customer-service account.
Be firm but not combative. Employ many of the same tactics you’d use in a phone call -- include specific information, such as dates and times, and have a clear goal in mind (a full refund, for example).
Don’t send sensitive information, such as credit card account numbers, on Twitter. Switch to a phone call.
Get ideas from other customers. Searching the business’s name on Twitter may turn up phone numbers of helpful representatives or other useful information.
Throw your social media weight around. For example, some businesses check customers’ Klout scores, which measure online influence (see yours at Klout.com). High scorers can try to get perks -- say, a free hotel-room upgrade -- just by asking.
Go online for discounts
Newspaper fliers are fine, but you can customize your coupons online, on Twitter and in your e-mail in-box. Using online coupon sites can easily slash $10 off each drugstore bill and $20 off clothing purchases, says Coupon Sherpa CEO Luke Knowles.
Check out Scoutmob, which adds a little twist to daily-deal sites. No payment is necessary until you present the coupon (displayed on your phone as a text, e-mail or on Scoutmob’s app) at checkout, so there’s no risk that you will buy a coupon and never cash it in.
Sign up for daily deals at Google Deals, Groupon and LivingSocial. They offer about 50% off everything from pizza to Pilates classes (for caveats to consider before you sign up, see 6 Things to Know About Daily Deals).
Get coupon codes at CouponCabin, Coupon Sherpa and RetailMeNot. Find the best deals by following those sites on Twitter or signing up for their e-mail alerts.
Register for e-mail or Twitter alerts at your favorite stores to receive insider-only promotions.
Spend less on new tech
Many gadget-lovers have plunked down big bucks on a first-generation -- or next-gen -- product only to see a better, cheaper version come down the pipeline. If you rushed out to buy a big-screen TV, your wallet certainly suffered from “early-adopter syndrome.”
Back in 2008, the average price of a 32-inch LCD TV was $867; by last year, the price had dropped by $330, according to iSuppli, a market-research firm. The first Kindle, introduced in 2007, cost $400; the latest version sells for as little as $110 without ads, is lighter and has way more memory and battery life. And you can snag a third-generation iPhone for as little as $50 (down from $600 at its 2007 introduction). Prices don’t always fall, but even newer models that cost the same will have enhancements, and the early kinks will be ironed out. For even better deals, look for refurbished tech products, which often come with warranties.
Nook Color: $199 brand-new, $145 refurbished
Droid Bionic: $200 brand-new, $150 refurbished
Apple MacBook Air: $1,100 brand-new, $800 refurbished
Western Digital My Passport 1TB Hard Drive: $172 brand-new, $152 refurbished
Eat out for less
It’s all in the timing and location (and by location, we also mean where in the restaurant you happen to sit down).
Opt for the bar menu. The portions are smaller, but so are the prices. For instance, at Morton’s the Steakhouse, you’ll pay $15 for four petite filet mignon sandwiches as opposed to $49 for the New York strip steak off the dinner menu.
Buy lunch, not dinner. Eat off the same basic menu minus the extra-large portions (a 10-ounce meat entree rather than a 14-ouncer) and fancy side dishes (say, potato chips instead of fingerling potatoes), for about two-thirds the price.
Choose fast-casual. Stand in line to order at upscale chains such as Vapiano’s (Italian) and La Madeleine (French). You’ll get the food and atmosphere of fancier, full-service restaurants while saving on price and tip.
Pick the prix-fixe. Land a deal on the fixed-price menu even at high-end restaurants. At Manhattan’s Gotham Bar and Grill, you can get a roasted-beet salad and the Scottish salmon entree for a fixed price of $25. Choose from the a la carte menu and a comparable selection -- a green salad and the pan-seared skate entree -- runs $34.
Find the best happy hour. Go to www.dailyhappyhour.com to find the happy-hour specials -- usually offered between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. -- at bars near you. Typical deals: beer for a buck, cocktails for $4, and half-price appetizers.
Let the kids eat for free. Visit www.mykidseatfree.com to find the restaurants near you where the kids score a freebie (usually on a particular night of the week and with the purchase of an adult entree). In Evanston, Ill., that would be Chili’s Grill & Bar, on Tuesday nights; in Elkridge, Md., it’s Mamma Lucia’s, where the freebies flow all day Sunday.
Drive the car that suits your lifestyle
Kia Sorento, Sticker price: $25,750 (LX V6)
Kia’s midsize SUV switched from truck to crossover construction last year and now features more agile, carlike handling. A four-cylinder engine graces the lineup and gets 29 miles per gallon on the highway, versus 26 mpg for the V6. Second-row legroom is a roomy 38 inches, and cargo space behind the second row is 37 cubic feet -- enough to fit the family and all your gear. The third row of seats (optional on four-cylinder models and standard on V6 models) is perfect for little ones, but not unbearable for adults. The Sorento rates a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Hyundai Sonata $21,455 (2.4L GLS)
It’s elegant as well as utilitarian, with generous legroom and cargo space, and a thrifty four-cylinder engine.
Honda Odyssey $29,035 (LX)
The bold exterior, improved driving dynamics and functional interior set it apart from its minivan peers.
Nissan Leaf, Sticker price: $36,050 (SV)
The first mass-market electric vehicle to hit the streets, the Leaf boasts serious amenities in addition to zero tailpipe emissions and a “fueling” cost of less than $700 a year. A heated steering wheel and heated seats and mirrors are standard features for 2012, as is a 7-inch information display with navigation (to help you find the nearest charging station), Bluetooth, and a USB connection for music. A full charge takes about eight hours on a 220-volt dock and will carry you 73 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The price tag is steep, but a $7,500 federal tax credit helps.
Ford Focus $19,095 (SE hatchback)
Redesigned for 2012, it has plenty of legroom, high resale value and gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway.
Hyundai Elantra, $15,955 (GLS)
A nice price and 40 mpg on the highway make it easy on your budget. It has an ample 15 cubic feet of cargo room.
Subaru Outback, Sticker price: $25,070 (2.5i automatic)
Kiplinger’s named the Outback Best in Class Wagon for the third year in a row, based on its fuel economy, stellar resale values and bragging rights as an IIHS Top Safety Pick. Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive comes in three different versions (all standard) on Outback models, depending on the transmission and engine. On the 2.5i automatic, power is distributed to the wheels depending on acceleration, deceleration and available traction. For trail-rated accessories such as splash guards and all-weather floor mats, check out the Popular Package ($772).
Ford Explorer, $34,920 (XLT AWD)
Explorer is now a crossover, with carlike handling and better fuel economy, but it’s still rugged enough for adventure.
Jeep Grand Cherokee, $29,820 (Laredo 4WD)
This Jeep has off-road cred, lots of interior space and highway fuel economy of 23 mpg.
Porsche Boxster, Sticker price: $62,750 (Spyder)
Many celebrities have driven Porsches over the years, but few were cooler than 1950s film star James Dean -- whose love of Porsches became legendary after his death at the age of 24 while driving a 550 Spyder. Questions of your demise aside, if you desire two seats and the feel of the wind tousling your hair, then the Porsche Boxster is a good choice. It corners and brakes like a dream, and the engine is placed mid car, so there’s storage fore and aft. The Spyder has a larger engine and more horsepower. If money is tight and you can sacrifice some speed, consider the base Boxster, for $15,000 less.
Chevrolet Corvette, $50,500 (base)
The 6.2-liter V8 packs 430 horsepower and propels the ’Vette (which turns 60 next year) from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds.
Mazda Miata, $26,245 (Sport)
Inspired by roadsters such as the MGB, the Miata is stripped to the essentials so you feel connected to the road.
Chrysler 300C, Sticker price: $41,145
Chrysler’s restyled 300C is evocative of the 1957 model, with a wide front grille and fins. But there’s more to the C than nostalgia. The doors open wide for easy entry, and the dashboard is clean, with big, easy-to-use controls. Heated seats (front and rear) and a rearview camera are standard, and the pedals and steering wheel adjust at the touch of a button. Add the Safetytec package ($2,420) for adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you on the highway. The package includes forward-collision and blind-spot warning and cross-path detection.
Mazda5, $20,140 (Sport)
This mini minivan offers easy access, seating for six and easy-stow seats for when you need more space.
Toyota Avalon, $33,955 (base)
Check out the eight-way power driver’s seat, easy-to-use dash controls and standard backup monitor.
2009 Honda Civic, Sticker price: $16,708 (EX-L sedan)
If you’d rather spring for a new car for your teen, consider the Kia Soul or Ford Focus. But if you’re looking to spend less, consider a three-year-old Civic. Its 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine produces 140 horsepower and gets 36 mpg on the highway. The EX-L model has safety features not available on lower trims -- standard stability and traction control plus brake assist (to apply maximum braking force in an emergency). Other standard perks include heated leather seats, USB connectivity and a 60/40 split folding rear seat to expand the car’s 12 cubic feet of cargo space.
2008 Chevy Malibu, $11,831 (LT)
The Malibu drives well, plus it comes with a slew of standard safety features and a wallet-friendly price.
2009 Scion xB, $12,323 (base)
The xB has a capacious 22 cubic feet of cargo space and, as a Toyota product, a history of reliability.
Land the best travel deals
For the best prices, be flexible, and be ready to pounce on special promotions and time-sensitive “flash sales.” Check the travel search engines (such as Kayak, Orbitz and Travelocity) for package deals on airfare, lodging and car rentals. Or sign up for the Gate1 newsletter, which sends out deals on all-inclusive vacations and tours.
Airfare. Scout out fares on major travel sites, then plug a few itineraries into Bing Travel’s handy “price predictor,” which forecasts whether prices are headed up or down. Next, sign up for e-mail alerts from airfare-alert sites or follow them on Twitter. We like Airfarewatchdog and Farecompare to get the scoop on sales and promotions. (Skip blind booking sites, such as Hotwire and Priceline, which often place you on roundabout routes at inconvenient times.)
Hotels. Flexible travelers should follow LivingSocial Escapes and Groupon Getaways for discounted offers at romantic villas and bed-and-breakfasts. Don’t forget local tourism sites and guidebooks when looking for lodging. Places that choose not to register with travel search engines can be a great deal and have more local flavor than the chain hotels.
Cruises. Look for cruises on Cruise.com, Kayak, Orbitz and Travelocity. If your dates are flexible, book during “wave season,” from January through March, when you can find deals of 50% to 60% off, says Mark Murphy, CEO of Travalliance.com.
Food. A few weeks before takeoff, sign up for Groupon, LivingSocial and Scoutmob in your destination city and pay special attention to restaurant coupons. Check online reviews on Yelp.com or Zagat.com.
Rent a vacation home
Vacation rentals aren’t just for summer beach getaways.
Vacation rental homes are pigeonholed as the classic lodging for families or large groups on beach vacations. But they can also suit singles and couples, not to mention families, looking for more space away from the tourist meccas in U.S. cities or abroad. Besides offering more square feet per dollar, rentals usually have a kitchen to help keep down food costs and a laundry room so you can pack lighter.
The financials work differently for vacation rentals than for hotels. You’ll likely pay a cleaning fee ($100 to $250) and may have to put down a security deposit or nonrefundable reservation deposit. Booking for a week can land you a reduced rate.
Be sure to book through a trustworthy site, such as VRBO.com or HomeAway.com. These sites include thousands of listings, both domestic and international, with the owner’s contact information, photos, reviews and pricing details. We also found a couple of smaller sites: Haveninparis.com focuses on Paris and Provence as well as London and Tuscany. Roomorama.com lists properties worldwide.
Hollywood. On HomeAway.com, a two-bedroom Craftsman-style house, within walking distance of the Walk of Fame and Sunset Strip, was renting for $250 per night.
Paris. In the trendy Marais neighborhood, an airy apartment runs from $300 to $375 per night (depending on the season). The apartment, listed on Haveninparis.com, sleeps four and offers cable and free calls to North America.
Southern Italy. A three-bedroom villa near Sorrento, Italy, starts at about $190 nightly on Roomorama.com (the price can triple during summer season), with a one-week minimum stay. It has an infinity pool and can sleep up to eight people.
Edinburgh. A two-bedroom luxury apartment listed on VRBO.com recently rented for between $165 and $340 per night (more during the August Edinburgh International Festival). Amenities include two fireplaces, a bathroom with heated floors and views of Edinburgh’s castle.
Protect your identity
How to keep sensitive information out of the clutches of ID thieves.
Secure government IDs. Keep your passport, birth certificate and Social Security card in a safe-deposit box or other secure place; never carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Don’t reveal personal details over the phone or enter them online unless it’s absolutely necessary. Before you divulge information, ask why it’s needed.
Hide the paper (and online) trail. Shred loan applications, bank statements and insurance forms before you toss them. To avoid high-tech identity thieves, never bank online using a public computer or public Wi-Fi over an unsecured network. When you are entering information online, look for “https” at the beginning of the URL. That means the site is secure. Make your passwords hard to crack by using symbols, uppercase and lowercase letters, and jumbled words (see Foil the Hackers With Unique Passwords).
Monitor your credit report. Look for bogus transactions or errors in your credit report by routinely checking your report at AnnualCreditReport.com. You’re entitled to receive one free copy from each of the three major credit bureaus every year. Stagger your requests and you can check your report every four months. Also pay close attention to credit card bills so you can spot any unauthorized charges. If you’ve been a victim of ID theft, contact one of the credit bureaus (Experian.com, Equifax.com or Trans Union.com) to file a fraud alert, which will require lenders to attempt to verify your identity before issuing any new credit in your name.