Maximizing your computer dollar

Finding the Best Buy on a Computer

by Charlie Cohn

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A good computer can make your life easier and more efficient, but they come at a price. Don't let high prices keep you working on Windows 95. Follow these tips to help find a new computer at a price within your budget.

1. Know What You Want and Buy What You Need

Every time Apple unveils a new laptop, I want to run to the store to buy the latest-and-greatest thing man has known in computing. The reality is that it would leave me broke, and I don't really need the newest model every year.

Be sure to evaluate your needs when choosing a computer. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What will I be using my computer for?
  • Do I need a laptop or desktop?
  • What specs do I actually need?

Many computer manufacturers allow you to customize a computer when you make a purchase. That means you can select exactly how much memory and RAM you'd like, the appropriate processor chip (which can be quite expensive), and what other additional features you require.

Skip the add-ons and software bundles and just select what you need. A recent Wise Bread article, "Don't Make These 5 Laptop-Buying Mistakes" even explains why an extended warranty is a waste of money. You don't need it, so don't buy it.

Seriously, a DVD-burner, ultra-high-definition monitor, built-in video editing software, and an Intel i7 processor sound great, but do you need them if you're just going to be surfing the web, checking your email, and doing some word processing? Probably not.

2. Shop Around

When it comes to buying a PC, you have tons of options vying for your business. That's a good thing because, for the casual computer user, there isn't much of a difference between manufacturers. You can find similar specs on models made by Lenovo, HP, Dell, and Acer. The biggest difference is in the name.

Additionally, you can buy a computer from any number of stores including Best Buy, Office Depot, Fry's, Walmart, and the manufacturer directly (don't forget about MacMall for discounts, you Apple fans!). In fact, buying from the computer company directly instead of a third party is often less expensive, and they give you more flexibility to customize your machine and get just what you want without the "extras" included at mega-stores.

3. Wait for the Right Time

Expert savers have written extensively about the best time to buy a flight, that magic sweet spot starting on Tuesdays at 3pm EST when airlines start promoting sales and competing for the best price. But, do you know the best time to buy a computer?

As reported by the NY Times, (before being made part of the eBay family) analyzed the price of 3,600 different laptop models sold at 116 sellers and found that the time periods in late June, the last two weeks of September, and mid-December have the lowest prices. Those time periods coincide with big computer demand during back-to-school and winter holidays, leading stores to promote offers to compete for their share of the market.

Beyond the time of year, you can find micro-trends among the suppliers. The online coupon company CouponPal has discovered trends amongst HP and Toshiba. New HP coupons get released every Sunday, meaning the computer company uses the latest deals to jumpstart the shopping week. Often these coupons have a limited number of redemptions available, so even if they are supposed to be valid until the following Saturday, sometimes the codes will expire sooner.

Similarly, the site publishes their new Toshiba deals on Tuesday mornings. The coupons are active from Tuesday through Thursday, and new codes run Friday through Monday, before the release of new offers. They also add an additional discount to one product for one day each week on Thursdays only.

If you look closely, you can find a similar pattern among all major retailers, which use discounts as a way to control inventory supply. If you know what you want but have time to spare, it's worth checking regularly to see how the offers vary each week, so you'll feel confident when a particularly good price comes along. Subscribe to the company's newsletter and watch a couple of coupon and deal websites to see if you can find a pattern.

4. Double Down on Savings

A sale is one thing, but doubling-down on offers takes savings to a new level. Look for a coupon that you can use in conjunction with another offer. I have saved $500 on a $1,000 computer by combining an instant rebate with a coupon to maximize savings. You can accomplish the same thing by applying a coupon to a sale or clearance computer.

5. Buy Last Year's Best Or This Year's Refurbs

Every time a new computer gets released, old inventory must be cleared out. Unless you need the newest computer (in which case you're probably not worried about getting a deal, anyway), take a look at the clearance section or search for last year's model. You will often find huge discounts from manufacturers and stores looking to clear remnant inventory.

Furthermore, many stores, like Best Buy, offer refurbished computers. Typically, these are computers in like-new condition that have been purchased and returned for any number of reasons ranging from "it's the wrong color" to "it's not compatible with my other software." All the products are tested and come protected by the same return policy as the original, so if it's not quite right for you either, you can still return it. This is a great way to score a deal on this year's release without paying full-price.

At the end of the day, do your research and make a firm decision as to what you want or need. Then, try to build in a bit of time (and patience) so that you can purchase the machine you want at the best price.

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