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6 key questions to ask before buying an online coupon deal

Failure to do your homework can quickly turn a great deal into a great deal of debt

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Hit the "buy" button too quickly, and deal-a-day websites can quickly turn into credit card debt.

Many daily deals are irresistable, offering half-off coupons at restaurants, spas, gyms and salons -- and even pricy island vacations. They're simple to use: Once subscribers sign up, one click on "buy" will charge the deal to their credit cards.

6 key questions to ask before buying an online coupon deal The danger lies in that very simplicity.

"Exuberance in spending quickly becomes depression in debt," says Greg Meyer, community relations manager at Meriwest Credit Union in San Jose, Calif. He urges consumers to think before clicking the "buy" button: "Stop and ask, 'Do I really need to take advantage of that? Is it critical to my lifestyle? What will I get out of it?'"

Those are three probing questions to ask before jumping into a deal; here are six more.  

1. How much will this deal really cost?
"The only way a bargain can fit into a healthy, responsible budget is if the bargain reduces monthly costs," says Judith McNiff, second vice president of wealth management at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

With that in mind, consider the entire cost of a deal: what it costs on paper, what it will cost in reality, plus transportation and any other deal-associated expenditures.

Take, for instance, a $50 restaurant gift certificate that costs $25. It's hardly a bargain if entrees at the restaurant average $25. Add appetizers, dessert and wine and before long, you're spending more than you saved. Add the tip -- waiters expect to be tipped on the nondiscounted total -- travel and babysitting and a $25 savings can turn into a $100 expenditure.

2. How else could I put that money to use?
"So many ways," says Rick Shapiro of Investment & Financial Counselors, an investment advice firm in West Hartford, Conn. Even $50 a month goes a long way toward paying down principal on a mortgage or slashing credit card debt, Shapiro says.

Better yet, he suggests, sock that $50 a month, or $600 a year, into a retirement account. 

Say a 30-year-old woman began investing $600 a year in a traditional IRA Given a 7 percent return, that $600 would turn into $82,942 by her 65th birthday, Shapiro notes. Such investing "is extremely powerful," he says, not to mention more useful than a string of budget dinners.

"We've gotten used to instant gratification," Shapiro says. "Planning for retirement and saving adequately is about discipline and a long-term view, not expecting a free lunch."

3. What does the fine print say?
Expiration and blackout dates, minimum expenditures, stipulations that the deal is for new clients only -- the fine print reveals details that can make a deal a budget-buster. 

Debra Yergen stopped buying online deals because of fine-print pitfalls. Last year, she bought four $50 gift cards for a housecleaning firm at a price of $20 each. The gift cards were good only four days a week, only before 4 p.m. and only after a by-appointment-only home assessment that the cleaning company required for new clients.

"There were a lot of hoops to jump through," says Yergen, a Yakima, Wash., resident and author of "Creating Job Security Resource Guide." She never used the coupons and thus was out $80. "They seemed a great deal at the time, but the fact that I couldn't use them made them not a good deal at all," she says.

4. What does my calendar say?

I see stacks of deals on people's desks. They buy them and don't use them

-- Kelley C. Long
KCL Financial Coaching
Consult your own calendar, the merchant's schedule, plus expiration and blackout dates before taking the plunge, says Kelley C. Long, principal at KCL Financial Coaching in Chicago. "I see stacks of deals on people's desks. They buy them and don't use them," Long says.

Last November, Long bought a yoga deal with a luxurious six-month expiration date. Fast forward to February: Long hadn't yet used the deal and doesn't know if she ever will. Her lesson? Now when Long purchases a deal, she prints the coupon and pencils in a date to use it.

5. Is this merchant worth visiting?
Merchants use deal-a-day sites to perk up business or help introduce their new business to an unfamiliar public. To protect your budget, investigate before you buy a deal for an unfamiliar restaurant, spa or salon.

Check out reviews on Yelp, Metromix and Citysearch to get a feel for how others enjoy an establishment, says Justin Shapiro, founder and director of sales for Bare Deal, a Chicago-based deal site.

"Focus on the quality of the offer," he urges. "If it's not a good restaurant or spa, people will spend money for something they don't enjoy."

6. Will I really use this deal?
Shawanda Greene doesn't like being outside. And the Arlington, Va., resident has never tried paintball. Still, last fall she plunked down $50 for an afternoon of paintball (valued at $108).

The paintball club was an hour's drive from her home and to use the coupon, Greene would have had to spend time in the chilly outdoors. "I don't know what possessed me," she says. Greene never used the deal. "I feel like I lost a lot of money," she says.

But she does use, and enjoy, restaurant deals. Greene, who eats out several times a week, buys about 20 restaurant deals a year. Doing so has saved her hundreds of dollars, mostly because she's careful to spend only the amount of the coupon. Her secret to staying within the budget? "I look at the menu online before I go."

See related: The first step in any budget: monitoring spending, 2010 gift card survey, Planning for retirement? Balance risk tolerance with need for growth, Discounts: 15 ways to get gift cards for less

Published: March 30, 2011



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