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E-coupon impulse buys can cost you

E-coupons can end up costing you more than you save

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By Susan Tompor
Detroit Free Press
Chauny Barnes-Sailor quickly skips through the coupons rolling onto her smartphone.
"They just continue to pop up," said Barnes-Sailor, 24 and a part-time student.
"Here's Pier One. Neiman Marcus. Guess. Express. Oh, I love Express. Pizza Hut."
Everywhere we turn these days, there's a special offer pinging at us. Just think about all the deals you come across via email, Internet searches and social networks.
So how much money are we really saving?
The answer is not neat: Some of us trick ourselves into thinking we're saving far more than we're spending, particularly if we don't keep track of all the impulse buys. But shoppers who are less distracted by the barrage of pop-up coupons, digital discounts and online offers might be saving a good deal.
Consider Barnes-Sailor, a Detroiter who works as a patient attendant at the Detroit Medical Center. She watches her spending but admits she will sometimes take a quick vacation on impulse. She gets email alerts from Southwest, Spirit, AirTran and
She recently came across an e-mail from AirTran for what she recalls was a 20 percent discount if she booked by midnight.
"It was an awesome deal," she said. "It was, like, $119." The quick flight afforded her a visit with her aunt in Atlanta.
Sharon Toles, 33, of Detroit is another discerning shopper.
"I'm glad I have willpower and can skip a lot of the coupons, if needed," Toles said.
Toles often books low-cost massages after using her Groupon application on her smartphone. And she's happy to pay $30 instead of $60 or $70 for massages.
Toles has given her email address to Macy's, JCPenney and DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse in order to get coupons emailed to her. More times than not, she said, those coupons get her to visit the store, especially if no minimum purchase is required.
"If I really don't see anything, I just won't buy anything," Toles said.
Only 3 percent of shoppers say that tech-driven instant access has made it easier to save, according to a survey conducted for the American Institute of CPAs by Harris Interactive.
About 37 percent don't seem sure, saying technology has made it both easier to spend and save.
Retailers know what online shopping buttons to press.
Wal-Mart has come up with a way to let shoppers buy things online but pay cash for those purchases at the store within 48 hours. No need for a bank account, credit card or debit card.
Costco Wholesale is trying to boost's business by launching mobile applications for Apple and Android in the next few weeks.
"People are dangling discounts in front of you, left, right and center," said Alex Matjanec, co founder of, which offers money-saving banking ideas.
The urge to splurge, obviously, was around long before an app could help you find a yard sale. (One such app is the Garage Sale Rover, which offers maps to locate local garage sales, yard sales and tag sales.)
Shoppers can't just blame e-coupons for busting their budgets, experts say.
It's more about your attitudes and habits relating to money than anything else, said Amy Parten, an education specialist at GreenPath, a nonprofit credit counseling company. Parten's advice is to avoid trips to a favorite store if that store triggers overspending.
But can you really ignore your cellphone and emails as easily? What if you miss something important from your child's school? Besides, it's so easy to buy via a mobile phone when you're bored. And those small purchases of $5 or $10 for online games or e-books can easily add up.
But while there is budget-busting temptation in cyberspace, there is also help.
Some websites and applications -- including Mint and Pageonce -- can track your spending when you use mobile devices, credit cards and debit cards to spend.
Mark Schwanhausser, senior analyst for Javelin Strategy & Research, which offers insights into consumer behavior, said that Pageonce helped him realize that several toll-free calls relating to a new computer were going to drive him into a higher cellphone pricing tier because the calls were outside of his circle of family and friends.
Various shopping-related apps, such as eBay's RedLaser and Amazon's Price Check, help consumers compare prices on big-ticket items.
Gadgets, gizmos and e-connections, of course, can save money, but mostly if they replace more expensive options.
Instead of spending $30 a month for unlimited texting, Matjanec of, takes advantage of a messenger app called "WhatsApp," real-time messaging with a network of friends and free unlimited messages to contacts in other countries.
"I look at the world as a la carte -- everything is pick-and-choose," he said.

Ways to save
Pay attention to what you spend for cable, smartphones, e-readers and apps. And, as part of a budget, stick to a limit of what you can spend each month.
Read the fine print. If you spend $10 now for a coupon for $20 worth of cupcakes later, how soon do you need to pick up those cupcakes?
Take time to compare prices and deals. Visit travel sites, such as Kayak or Hipmunk, to compare prices before you book a ticket by midnight.
Do not sign up for buyback programs when you buy electronic gadgets, according to Consumer Reports.
For an upfront fee, the store may allow you to turn that electronic item in later for a credit when you want to replace it with a new gadget. But the Consumer Reports Money Adviser newsletter warns that the payout is often small. You'd be out of luck if the store doesn't sell the next, latest gadget.



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