Tiny print that tricks consumers, stuff that used to be free but isn't anymore and gadgets you can install on your car to reduce auto insurance premiums.
That's a sampling from Spending Smart topics this year, along with secrets on how to buy diamonds, bicycles and burglar alarms, and the ideal time to buy deodorant and TVs.
We even explored why men don't buy vegetarian and why we spend less cash with crisp bills.
Here is some of the top spending advice from 2012, based on reader feedback, how unusual the advice was and our own favorites.
Diamonds. Buying diamonds takes research, but it's mostly about the four Cs: cut, color, clarity and carat. If you want the most bang for your buck, pay most attention to the stone's cut. More sparkle from a superior cut might mean you can get away with a smaller, less-expensive diamond.
Complaining. Complaining is easy, but complaining well to a company takes know-how. One of the best ways to get help is getting a real person on the phone, which means navigating frustrating phone trees. Several websites, including gethuman.com and dialahuman.com, give advice on reaching specific companies, providing phone numbers and secret strategies to bypass automated phone systems. Tactics for bypassing a phone tree include staying silent, refusing to respond to the system's prompts and to start speaking gibberish to get transferred to an operator.
Telematics. Telematics relates to voluntary auto insurance programs that give discounts based on electronic monitoring of driving habits. Devices attached to your vehicle can measure how many miles you drive, when you drive, how fast you go and how hard you accelerate, brake and corner. The idea is that cautious drivers who travel fewer miles should pay lower insurance premiums because they're less likely to be in an auto accident. The big downside is relinquishing privacy — allowing your insurance company to compile all that information about your driving habits.
Mouse print. Tiny print is the catch, the gotcha, the bait-and-switch. “FREE BOX OF CORN FLAKES ... with purchase of a box at regular price.” Many readers responded with their own mouse-type peeves. “My belief is that whatever the bold print announces, the fine print taketh away,” one reader wrote. Some were especially annoyed with downsized food products — keeping the price the same but putting less in the package. “I remember when a pound can of coffee actually had 16 ounces in it. Now it's around 12 or 13 to a pound can of coffee,” one reader wrote.
Medicine cabinet. Many people are overpaying for medicines and personal care items. Supermarkets might occasionally have sale items, while warehouse clubs probably have decent prices any time, but with less variety. But chain drugstores are the best place to shop for pain relievers, allergy medications, toothpaste and contact lens solution. That's because of lucrative loyalty rewards programs at Walgreen's, CVS and Rite Aid. They're worth checking out.
Bikes. Like new cars, new bicycles depreciate dramatically the moment they leave the shop. So buying used can be a better value. Refurbishing an older bike to a safe and comfortable condition is relatively simple and cheap. Resources for do-it-yourself repairs include Bicycling magazine's website, bicycling.com/maintenance and YouTube videos.
Simplify. How do you harness the desire for material things without feeling deprived? Ask yourself, when is enough, enough? What's the dollar figure at which you feel you earn enough? How many pairs of shoes are enough? Too often the answer isn't a number. The answer is “more,” which means you can never be content. Brainstorm a list of what's truly important to you. Then open your calendar and your checkbook or credit card statement. How did you spend your time and money during the past few months?
The answer is evidence of what has been important to you in the past. What will you make important for the future? To gain perspective before making a big or complicated purchase, ask yourself how it will affect your life in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years.
Burglar alarms. Buying a home security system and the alarm monitoring that often goes along with it can be a thorny purchase, fraught with such perils as wildly differing prices, high-pressure sales tactics and unfriendly contracts. Get several price quotes for both system installation and monitoring, perhaps starting with companies rated highly by Angie's List or Consumers' Checkbook. Remember, you don't have to stay with the same monitoring company that installed your system. Cheap and effective alternatives to a home security system include quality deadbolts on doors, substantial window locks and motion-sensor lighting outside — even getting a dog.
Reuse. After a column on ways to reuse common household items for other purposes, readers seemed eager to chime in with their own ideas. Reader ideas included using emptied cereal bags for storage or for placing within a cut of meat to be tenderized. Another said she repurposes olive oil bottles as bud vases. Our suggestions included not only using dryer sheets more than once, but using them as wipes for the kitchen and bath. And in addition to using vinegar instead of pricey liquid weedkillers to kill weeds, take boiled water from pasta and pour it on weeds in sidewalk cracks to kill them. Fill a plastic milk jug or soft drink bottle with water and place it in your toilet tank to displace water and cut water use. Wad up used aluminum foil to clean the outdoor grill and stuck-on food from pots and pans. Our favorite? A bacon-scented kitchen candle made by pouring bacon grease into a tin can and inserting a cloth wick.
Buying seasons. Amazing seasonal discounts are available if you can correctly time your purchases because prices change, sometimes dramatically, through the year. Buy televisions in November and December, not during Super Bowl sales. Sign up for a gym membership in summer, and buy deodorant in May or June. Buy perfume after Christmas and after Valentine's Day. Stock up on home office supplies during back-to-school sales in August and early September.
Studies. Academic studies in consumer behavior published in 2012 gave us insight into the weird buying and spending decisions we make. For example, studies found male consumers are reluctant to try vegetarian products because of a strong association of meat with masculinity. And consumers typically spend more with worn bills than crisp ones.
Free. Readers seemed to like reminiscing about things that used to be free that we pay for today. Nowadays, we pay for such formerly free things as TV service, air for our car tires, checked airline luggage, pizza delivery and even drinking water.
The point is to re-examine what you pay for now and determine what's worth it and what's not