6 tricks for savvy online shopping

Whether you're holiday shopping on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you're losing money if you're not using these tricks.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal Freelance Writer
Sarah is a freelance writer and CNET How To blogger. Her main focus is Windows, but she also covers everything from mobile tech to video games to DIY hardware projects. She likes to press buttons and see what happens, so don't let her near any control panels.
Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
4 min read
Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

You don't have to go to a physical store on Black Friday to experience the shopping madness -- there will be plenty of madness online. But here's the real reason you should shop online (aside from the fact that there's little to no risk of getting trampled to death): It's cheaper.

Thanks to promo codes, cashback sites and sneaky tricks online stores use to lure you back, shopping online can actually be a very rewarding experience -- if you know how to do it. Use these super-easy tips when you shop online to save a ton of money.

Find a coupon or a promo code

There are two types of discounts to look for before you make a purchase: Online promo codes and physical, paper coupons. Just be wary of those fake coupons that sound too good to be true.

Online promo codes are easy to find, providing you do a quick Google search before you check out with your treasures. You'll find most promo codes on aggregation sites like RetailMeNot, Coupons.com, CouponFollow, and DealsPlus. They use crowdsourcing to determine whether listed coupons are still valid; users vote codes up or down based on whether they could use them for their recent purchases. Don't be afraid to try an unpopular or expired code -- some coupons only work in certain locations, while others might have very specific terms that the downvoters didn't like. To check automatically for coupons every time you shop online, the Honey browser extension (Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox) automatically scans for active coupons as your browse.

Paper coupons aren't quite as simple as a Google search, especially if they're single-use coupons. Many stores offer paper coupons as future shopping incentives -- for example, if you spend $50 today, you'll get a 20-percent-off coupon that you can use next month. These coupons are often valuable, but what if you didn't shop at that store last month? Easy: Check eBay. You'll find many coupons on eBay selling for a fraction of their value because the sellers have nothing to lose. If you can stand to wait a couple of days for a paper coupon to come in the mail, you'll end up saving a lot of money.

The 39 best Black Friday tech deals we've found so far

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Use a cashback program

Here's how it works: When you click through a cashback site like Ebates and FatWallet to reach the store where you want to shop, the site gets a referral bonus for sending you there. And to make sure you keep using the cashback site (instead of navigating to stores on your own), it will give you a kickback -- usually 2 to 4 percent of the purchase you made. If you spend $100 at Nordstrom and go through a cashback site that gives you 4 percent back, for instance, that's an extra $4 for doing practically nothing. Plus, usually you can use cashback sites in conjunction with coupons and promo codes.

My go-to cashback site is Ebates, which offers good cashback rates on larger stores (including Nordstrom, Kohl's, Walmart and Neiman Marcus) and pays out four times per year via PayPal. For tech shopping, FatWallet has cashback deals for places like Dell, GoDaddy, HP and Newegg. FatWallet pays you immediately, but you can request a payment only when you have $10 or more in your account. Swagbucks is a cashback site with better rates but an extra step -- instead of cash, Swagbucks gives you 'Swagbucks,' which you can redeem for Amazon gift cards (1 Swagbuck = 1 cent).

Go gift card hunting

Screenshot by Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

If you know you're going to be doing a lot of shopping at one particular store, you can score a "discount" by purchasing a gift card to that store for less than what it's worth. Online gift card exchanges Raise, Gift Card Granny and Cardpool let you purchase other people's unwanted gift cards at a discounted price. It's usually not a huge discount -- a quick look at Raise's front page shows average discounts of around 6 percent -- but it's something.

Take a break

I know -- it's difficult to stop yourself from hitting "checkout" when you've already typed in your credit card number. But before you pull the trigger on an online purchase, it's a good idea to take a moment, step away, and let your items sit in your cart for a couple of days.

Online stores are tracking you. They know when you visit their site, when you add things to your cart, and when you abandon your cart seconds before you're about to make a purchase. If you walk away from your cart, chances are high that they'll send you an email -- often with an incentive, such as a discount code or free shipping -- asking you to come back and complete your checkout.

Watch this: Your Black Friday shopping survival guide

Check social media

While smaller brands -- including Etsy sellers -- won't show up on the big coupon aggregators or cashback sites, that doesn't mean they don't offer discounts. If you can't find a promo code via Google, search a store's Facebook and Twitter accounts for posts with codes that could still be valid (or send them a message and just ask). You don't have to follow and like every company you want to purchase from, but it's often worth it to follow the smaller brands so you're ready to pounce when their promo codes hit your feed.

Think 'bundle,' not 'bottom line'

If you have a flexible budget look for bundles, rather than discounts, on hot holiday tech. Apple products and game consoles are usually the main targets -- retailers can't cut the prices of these products, but they can offer bundled incentives, like games, accessories, and gift cards (like for iTunes). Instead of picking up a PlayStation 4 for $299, find a $350 bundle that includes two free games and an extra controller. Just make sure you do some basic research -- not all games currently go for their full retail price of $60, so some bundles are better deals than others.