a beginner’s guide by Drew Unger
First off, a little background on me, I am a law student at the University of Georgia and upon graduation I hope to secure a position as an Assistant District Attorney in a Metro Atlanta County. That being said, neither my current, nor my future financial position will allow me to carelessly throw money away, buying everything I want. Sadly, that lack of funds seemingly conflicts with one of my prime directives, and that is to immerse myself in as much technology and gadgetry as possible.
I have always loved electronics and technology. Other hobbies have come and gone, some have lingered longer than others, but few have had the staying power or the potential to enrich and change lives like good tech. My girlfriend can give me a hard time about how happy it makes me, but even she’ll admit, the deal I got on her ReplayTV is the stuff legends are made of. Everybody cries at the end of Old Yeller, but when was the last time your eyes got watery thinking about the new GPS enabled PocketPC Phone Edition from HP. Ever get misty when you loaded 3rd party firmware onto an already fantastic router like the Linksys WRT to enable wireless bridging and signal boosting? Never? Well that’s ok because the only thing that rivals my interest in tech, is my determination not to spend a lot of money on tech. Everybody can get down with saving money right? Right. Read on my young padawan.
The key to buying anything online is patience and flexibility. Really? Why isn’t it just super strength and the ability to fly already? I admit that seems like a tall order, but let me explain to you how the world works. Deals change more often than a newborn’s diapers. Rebates come and go, coupons drift in and out, some sales are weekly, some are monthly, and some are weird, Amazon I’m talking to you. In order to get the best possible price for anything, you have to be willing to wait. The mantra for buying computers really holds true for everything. Wait till you absolutely have to have it, then wait another month. Yet at the same time you have to be ready to spring into action like a cougar chasing a puma, or a mountain lion going after a panther. I know, those are all the same animal. The point is, it doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it, the basics are still the same, and all great deal hunters have to start somewhere.
The first step is to know what you want and seek it out. Do your research online, it saves time and money and you can absorb more data from more sources than you would by going to one or two Brick and Mortar (BM) stores. Start at manufacturers’ websites, read reviews at Amazon or CircuitCity.com, and compare prices at Pricegrabber.
After that you can begin to scout the initial deals, like 30% off at X store, ABC.com’s monthly sales ad, and simple rebates from any source. You need to stir the pot, or troll the waters, or any other clichéd motion involving mixing stuff up. This step requires research into the best previous deals as well as those that are coming up but have not started yet. How do I know about a deal that hasn’t started you ask? Simple, the company will tell you. Use a junk web-mail account (you’ll get some spam is why) like Yahoo or Hotmail, but for goodness sakes Don’t Taint G-mail! Then sign up for your favorite retailer’s newsletter or mailing list. Places like Staples and CompUSA regularly send out emails about upcoming sales to their subscribed customers. It’s free, and sometimes they send you snail mail or online coupon codes too! Dell is famous for this and when their coupon codes stack with currently running sales, you have the makings of a great computer deal.
Next comes rebates, and they should really come first, but I didn’t want to throw too much at you right away. Rebates are the meat and potatoes of the ultimate tech deal, no matter what you are buying. Rebates from both the manufacturer and the retailer are great, but get them anyway you can. Too much trouble you say? You don’t want to have to buy a stamp? Even if it took you 5 gallons of gas to get to the nearest Post Office to mail a letter, $100 – (5 x 2.25) still equals $88.75 for a $100 rebate. They are paying you money to buy their stuff. All you have to do is take it. For instance, T-mobile and Verizon have paid me $150, $150, and $25 after activation fees for my last 3 cell phone purchases, all subject to only 1 year contracts. When I was done, I unlocked two for use with any GSM carrier and eBayed them for even more profit. But rebate companies always deny me, you say? Well, you do have to keep records. Find a copy machine or use a scanner and keep a copy of your receipt, upc, and rebate form. If the rebate center tries to deny you, just tell them you have the correct information and resubmit. Now we’re really talking too much effort? Don’t worry, you’ll get them next time. I’m teaching you to be the 20% of people who actually successfully send in their rebates. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
The last step is the kicker. It’s what distances the good deal from the amazing one, the deal hunter, from the deal hungry. And the big finish? Use Price Matches to sweeten the deal! The tech world is far too competitive for anyone to stick to rigid price structures handed down nationally from corporate. Sometimes you can even get a store to price match it’s own price. Think about that without getting a nosebleed! Grand Openings and sales happen all the time, and stores always want your money, so they will very often fight to get it. All you have to do is find out who’s the wimp and who’s the bully. But get this, you buy from the bully! You want to patronize the most aggressive retailer with the most progressive and consumer friendly sales policies. If a company says it can’t price match this product because it has a different model number (when you know they gave it a proprietary number just for this reason) or because the other store has rebates on their product, don’t give up, get even! The title of this lesson is not “The Ultimate Handout” it’s “The Ultimate Challenge” and sometimes you have to put in your own work to save $1000. That’s right, I said $1,000. And if you can laugh off $1,000 like it was nothing, then please send your check or money order to:
c/o The Ult…
Seriously, all you have to do is seek, stir, add meat, then sweeten, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the ultimate tech deal. But how do I keep track of all that, and why am I so hungry? Well, you keep track of it on your own PC and at www.FatWallet.com and you’re hungry because you have gotten your first taste of creamy tech deal goodness.
FatWallet is a forum where deal hunters like me, and soon you too, post and share killer deals. The site even has a nifty little tool called Topic Alerts where you enter in the search topic of your choice and FatWallet sends you an email the instant a deal breaks matching that keyword. Sounds intense right? Wait until you buy an email capable phone just to get those alerts wherever you are. The deals are posted in the Hot Deals Forum and when they’re dead, they’re moved to the Deal Discussion Forum and you can converse with other users about the product or see who has received the rebates so far. There’s a coupon begging forum, but it’s probably easier to just buy them off eBay for $1-4. Yes, I said buy coupons. Yes, they should come to you for free, but you didn’t sign up for those mailing lists at the stores like I said did you?
Ready for an advanced tip? Sure you are. If you’ve run out of note paper, just write this one on your hand. On top of coupons, rebates, price matches and general sales, you can also save from 1-5% on literally millions of online items. Where? Why? How? Well, 1) FatCash at FatWallet.com 2) um, because you like having money more than not and 3) I’m about to tell you, but 3 is an easy answer too. If you frequent any kind of product user forum, then you may have seen some special deals offered to members just by clicking a certain link to get to the vendor’s site. Yes the site gets paid when you shop with the vendor, but in this case, so do you. All you need to do is open a free account and start your transaction at FatWallet.com. Once you’ve found the item deal of your dreams check the Cash Back vendor list on the FatWallet main page, chances are your vendor probably has a deal with FatWallet. Amazon, Dell, Target, Home Depot, Circuit City, Office Depot, Buy.com, Dell, HP, and Staples are just a few of the hundreds of vendors offering cash back, but seriously, if you’re shopping somewhere else I have one question, Why? The link you click will take you straight through to the vendor’s site, but make sure you have cookies enabled because that is how you are going to get credit for the purchase. A FatWallet popup may appear, go ahead and buy what you came for and depending on the store, you can expect anywhere from 1-5% in cash back once the offer is processed (which can take 60 days or so). For example, just for buying a notebook computer using the Fat Cash click through for OfficeMAX shown below got me an additional $30 deposited to my Paypal account just for for 1 click! You can then have Paypal cut you a check or deposit directly to your bank account for free! Of course this savings was in addition to the $200 in rebates on the notebook itself–but your Fat Cash percentage is based on the initial before rebate price.
Now that I have taught you how to fish, let me give you some idea of the whoppers you can reel in with the following case studies. Note: These are actual deals for actual products which I have purchased, thus my personal information has been blacked out, but if you feel like discussing these or any potential deals you have your eye on, send an email to [email protected] and time and course load permitting I will respond. Just make the subject of your email “Please bestow upon me oh Great One, thy all-knowing knowledge of all things ‘lectric”. Or just write “Hi”, that’s ok too.
Important: All of the following deals were purchased online with the in-store pickup option selected. This is by far the best method to get scorching deals. Some stores like BestBuy have atrocious inventory management software and they often have no idea if something is in stock, even when the website says it is ready for pick-up and they have your money in their pocket. So rather than pay for shipping and wait forever only to face order cancellation, I order online and then go right to the store. Circuit City has the best in-store policy in place. I have actually ordered from the in-store kiosk and made a cell phone call only to watch an associate come and remove the item I ordered from the shelf to take it out of circulation and guarantee it’s available for me to pick-up. Circuit City is my favorite store and they outclass the competition in many other ways as well. Now on to the examples…
Case Study 1: 1GB Cruzer Flash Drive
Normally $100 – $10 coupon – $27 Rebate – $27 Rebate – $23 Rebate = $13 Savings over retail = 83%
Here’s how much the drive costs today, $109. At the time of the deal it was $99, but that’s no super savings…yet.
Here is my order confirmation showing 2 Best Buy rebates and 1 from Sandisk, and a Gigabyte of flash storage is just that easy, but finding an item with 3 rebates takes time. Did I really need the paper? No, but sometimes you have to buy what is called “filler”, an item designed to get prices above a certain mark where you can then use a coupon. In this case the threshold was getting the $99 dollar drive over $100 to save $10 on the purchase with an online coupon.
Case Study 2: 160GB Tivo with DVD Recorder
Normally $599-699 – 50% Store coupon – $200 Rebate = $100 Savings over retail = 83%
Here is an interesting purchase. My girlfriend and I each have Lifetime activated ReplayTV which is the basically a technophiles’ Tivo. Hers was $150 and mine was $180, though each normally sells for about $150 plus $299 Lifetime activation (another hot deal!) But that’s not what this study is about. Why get a Tivo if I’ve already got 2 PVRs? Well, #1 savings, and #2 more savings, and actually I got it for my mom if you must know.
This unit features the Tivo Basic service which gives the user 3 days of program guide information free for life, as opposed to the general PVR fee of about $13 monthly or $299 Lifetime.
If you paid monthly or for lifetime, you could have a 14 day program guide, but that is strictly a matter of user preference. Additionally, this unit comes with a DVD Recorder built-in, perfect for people without PC based DVD-burners (like my mom). This lets you burn any show you record, like Mystery Science Theater 3000, to a DVD to watch later or give to a friend.
Now for the deal. This unit is $699 now at BestBuy, but it was $599 when I bought it. Alerted to a hot deal by FatWallet I found that some BestBuy stores had coupon books which they were giving out in the home theater department and inside was a coupon for 50% of any Tivo unit (shown right)! Well, because I sprang into action, I was able to buy the unit while it also had a $200 rebate. Thus the rebate and essentially a $300 coupon make this $100 Tivo/DVD recorder a scorching deal! Some people pay more than that for an average DVD player alone, probably because they were busy browsing at www.froofypuppies.com or www.takemycash.net instead of here where they should have been.
Case Study 3: Kingston 512MB PC3200 RAM (perfect for dual channel systems like the Dell Dimension 4600 or any desktop that can support it)
Normally 99.99, on sale for $59 – $27 rebate – $15 rebate – $5.50 price match (110% match to $54.99 competitor) = $11.50 or $46 for 2GB
Savings over retail = 88%
It’s always a good idea to buy your PC with the minimum RAM configuration and upgrade later on your own, and this deal is proof of that. Even the current deal shown in the window at left is not bad. It’s on sale now for $59, with $35 in mail-in-rebates for a total price of $24.99.
If you could price match this to something it would be hot. Let’s look at a better scenario:
This online order was completed and in-store pick-up was selected because of the great sale price ($59) plus 2 rebates for a total $42 off. Then the RAM was price matched to the same item at CompUSA, where it was $54.99 with no rebates. Circuit City has a great policy of price matching 110% of the difference so this RAM ended up being $11.50, not bad considering a sale price of $59, and a normal rebated price of $25. With this deal I was able to get 2GB (4 x 512MB) of fast desktop RAM for less than $50. To put that in perspective, the best price for 4 generic sticks of the same size and speed RAM from dealRAM.com is $160. I don’t care who you are, that’s hot. Even Carlton got in on this one to upgrade a fairly new HP which was struggling with only 256MB of RAM.
Case Study 4: Toshiba R15-S822 14.1″ 1.6GHz Centrino Tablet PC
Normally $1599, on sale for $799 (one day only) – $50 rebate – $150 rebate = $600
Savings of $1000! Savings over retail = 62%
This is my favorite deal of them all, even though it has the lowest percent savings. I had just bought an Averatec Tablet at the beginning of the summer, but after reading of some users experiences with defects and poor warranty support I was looking to get out. Then one night, and one night only, this little beauty went on sale for nearly half off. What happened was the website showed full price, but if you opted for in-store pickup, certain stores were clearing out tablets that had just gotten to the store shelves a few months earlier. As luck would have it, the local Athens Office Depot had one, so I bought it and was there at 7am when the doors opened to pick it up.
Here’s a copy of my order confirmation for another store. Yes I got greedy, and they were going on Ebay for $1100-1300, and everybody was doing it, and…and…well I got carried away, ok?
But what about the specs right, it must have been a bargain basement tablet that they marked up to mark down again? Nope. 1.6GHz Pentium processor with Centrino package*, 512MB of RAM, and a 5400rpm hard drive. Unless you configure your computer yourself, it probably came with a slower 4200rpm hard drive. But trust me, the speed difference is worth the extra price. I actually put the 54 in the notebook I sold and then put an even faster 7200rpm drive in this tablet!
*Centrino is one of the most misunderstood bits of marketing propaganda ever conceived. Centrino is not the processor, it’s not the RAM, it’s not the hard drive, well then what is it? Centrino actually denotes a particular combination of CPU, mainboard chipset and wireless network interface. The combination currently consists of a Pentium M processor, the Intel 855 chipset family, and an Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 (wireless-B) or PRO/Wireless 2200 (wireless-G) network card.
(Note: I ran into an issue with one of the included Toshiba programs not functioning correctly and had to call tech support, and wow, was I amazed! My call went right through to a very amiable Support rep whose first language was most definitely English, and the problem was solved in no time with some driver downloads–I couldn’t find the right ones myself, I was having an off day, sorry. The service was much more efficient than I’ve ever had with Dell, and I like Dell service. Anyway, the build quality and support on this Toshiba are a thing of beauty and I highly recommend picking one up, just don’t pay full price of course.)
Now that I’ve cleared that up, I can tell you about the rest of this deal. When I bought the Toshiba it had a manufacturer rebate of $50 on it. But lo and behold, the next week, after most stores, including mine, had cleared their inventory, a $150 Office Depot rebate appeared in addition to the still active $50 one. I took my receipt back to the store and asked if I could return and rebuy the unit thereby allowing me to send off for the new rebate too. The assistant remembered me from when I bought it and happily complied and now the tablet that costs $1600 today, will end up being mine for only $600.
If you think this was a fluke, a week after my purchase, FatWallet reported that Office Depot was clearing out 3 more $1000+ notebooks:
|Dual Layer DVD Burner
|$612 on sale AR
|$394 on sale AR
|$689 on sale AR
The last step was critical. Many stores have price match guarantees. Some are good for up to 30 days any time you see a lower price locally advertised. The very good stores will even match their own prices so you get a great deal, but if it gets any better–then you get that new incentive too! You have now been instructed in the art of the Ultimate Tech Deal. I send you out as deal wolves amidst the average consumer sheep. Go out into the world and save money!