(ARA) - We keep hearing the words "bad economy," and while views differ on the strength of the recovery, the reality is that most people are still feeling the aftermath of the recent recession. The good news is that you have control over your own personal economy. More than ever before it's easy to save money and manage your finances. With the abundance of online tools and free apps, consumers can find the best prices and keep track of their spending in mere seconds - they just have to make a concerted effort.
"The funny thing is - even in a bad economy - many people packing into malls across America don't seem very concerned about saving money," says Trae Bodge, senior editor for The RetailMeNot Insider. "Simply cutting costs on the purchases we make every day can lead to significant long-term savings."
Bodge says that the following smart-buying strategies can help consumers save on purchases they were already planning to make.
* Compare prices: Before purchasing a product, do some investigative shopping online. Price comparison tools like Red Laser, PriceGrabber and NextTag allow you to find the lowest possible price online. Apps like Invisible Hand do comparison shopping for you in real time, immediately alerting you when the item you are purchasing online is available elsewhere for less.
* Use coupons: Once you've narrowed down the stores with the lowest list prices, make sure you also search for coupons to maximize your savings and stretch your dollar further. While one store may offer an item for a couple of dollars less, its competitor may have a coupon that saves you even more. Sites like RetailMeNot.com
allow you to access hundreds of thousands of coupons by category or store for free, serving up deals ranging from free shipping to 30 percent off your purchase or more. RetailMeNot's Coupons App for iPhone enables you to find deals on items when you are out and about, which is especially important for last-minute savings while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
* Be loyal: Do you find yourself shopping online for the same items every month? If so, check to see if those sites offer an auto-delivery service. As a thank-you for ordering regularly, many sites offer you points toward discounts or, as in the case of Drugstore.com, reduced shipping on your replenishment orders. And don't forget that many credit card companies offer loyalty and/or cash back rewards. Just remember to pay down your balance to avoid getting hit with high interest fees.
* Save a bundle: Besides finding great deals on individual items, consider combining your purchases. For example, when it comes to travel, you can find great deals on packaged offers that bundle airfare and hotel, using sites like Orbitz and Expedia. But bundling is not restricted to just travel. Did you know that Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic and Piperlime are owned by the same company and their websites are linked? They offer free shipping on orders over $50 across all four sites - and you know how easy it is to spend $50 while shopping those four great brands.
* Track expenses: Use a free service like Mint.com to track and categorize your monthly expenses. You may be surprised to learn that you are spending too much of your income in one category (such as fees or shipping) and can make appropriate course corrections to cut unnecessary expenses.
The truth is, you can save money without sacrificing lifestyle by employing these smart shopping strategies. "By year-end," says Bodge, "you'll see significant results when you flex your smart shopping muscles." Just remember, it's only a deal if you need the item and can legitimately justify the purchase.