The best money-saving tips of 2012

Get a refresher course on the secrets of cheap Apple gear, the most affordable smartphone ever, saving money on just about everything you buy online, and more.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

2012 was hellish in a lot of ways, but it was a good year for saving money.

Indeed, as any regular reader of The Cheapskate or CNET's Marketplace knows, you could count on finding a good deal -- often a great deal -- pretty much every single day.

Of course, some of the best money-saving advice applies all year round, not just on a particular day. With that in mind, I've rounded up some of my favorite thrifty tips from 2012. (It probably goes without saying that most of them will work just as well in 2013.)

1. Always buy refurbished Apple gear.

The stigma of "refurbished" simply doesn't apply to Apple products, because the company works extreme-makeover magic on every refurbished iPod, iPad, and iMac it sells. To wit, you get a new outer case, a new battery, and a full warranty.

The hitch, of course, is that you're limited to whatever inventory Apple's online store (sorry, retail shoppers) happens to have at any given moment. Right now, that includes a refurbished third-gen iPad with Wi-Fi (32GB) for $469 shipped. Don't blame me if you paid $599 for the same model as little as 10 months ago.

2. Always use a cash-back service.

It's nice to score the occasional discount, but it's just plain awesome to get money back on just about everything you buy online. That's the appeal of cashback services like Ebates, FatWallet, and the newer MonaBar (see below), which pay you back a percentage of every dollar you spend at thousands of e-tailers.

Which cashback site offers the biggest bonus for a given store? Use the Cashback Comparison bookmarklet to find out. Want an easier way to spot cashback deals? Install MonaBar, a toolbar that automatically appears when you visit a participating store. (According to a company rep, MonaBar "works with over ten times as many retailers as Ebates." From what I've seen, though, its cashback percentages are slightly lower.)

Whatever service you use and however you use it, don't buy another thing online without a cashback option in your corner.

3. Find coupons at checkout with Coupons at Checkout.

Talk about double-dipping: First you score an automatic discount via a cashback service, then you get the chance at even bigger savings via a coupon code.

Not sure where to find those codes, or which one(s) might work with your purchase? Browser plug-in Coupons at Checkout eliminates all the guesswork: Once you get to a store's checkout page, it automatically lists any and all available coupon codes for that store. You may have to sift through them to find one that works, but it's still significantly quicker and easier than the old way.

4. Ditch your landline once and for all.

MagicJack Plus. The NetTalk Duo WiFi. Ooma. Whatever voice-over-IP-powered solution you choose, the time has come to pull the plug on your pricey home phone service. As long as you have high-speed Internet service, you can switch over to any of these gizmos and enjoy dirt-cheap local and long-distance calling. (How cheap? How does $30 per year sound?) You can even keep your existing number.

I've tested all three, and while Ooma remains my home-phone alternative of choice, it's hard to go wrong with the latest MagicJack and NetTalk options. They're all solid.

5. Get a smartphone on the cheap from Republic Wireless.

Everybody wants a smartphone, but no one wants to pay $70-$80 per month for the privilege. If you can get by with a no-frills model, Republic Wireless offers the lowest point of entry: $259 for a Motorola Defy XT, then just $19 per month for unlimited talk, texting, and data.

The secret lies in the Defy's preference for Wi-Fi, which it taps for phone calls whenever a hot spot is available (like at home or the office). When there's no Wi-Fi, it hits up Sprint's 3G network. The only thing it can't do is hand off calls between the two, a minor hassle.

But, hey, most people want a smartphone for the apps, and you're more than covered on that front. Angry Birds, Evernote, Facebook, Netflix -- Republic's handset handles all those apps and pretty much everything else in the Google Play store. For 19 no-contract dollars per month. It's the bargain of the year, no contest.

What deals and money-saving tips rocked your 2012? Tell me about them in the comments! And here's to another year of great deals and savings.