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Cash or credit? Rent or own? We make decisions about money every day, and those simple choices can have long-term effects on our financial futures. In our "This or That" series, we break down the reality of everyday financial decisions, both big and small, so you can make better decisions that will help you reach your goals.
Unless you daydream about appearing on a revival of Supermarket Sweep (oh, just me? OK), hitting the store whenever you need something probably isn't how you shop anymore. Then again, endless swiping through online inventories can drive even the most dedicated shopper a little crazy.
And sticking to the screen doesn't always guarantee you're scoring the best deals. So how do you decide what to buy online vs. in-store? We asked shopping pros for their takes.
What You Should Buy Online
Electronics: Using your tech to buy more tech makes sense — and that's how you'll see the best savings. Not only can you comparison-shop across traditional retailers like Target and Walmart, you can also search across specialty stores like Best Buy or Apple, as well as dedicated tech sites like TigerDirect or Newegg.
Buying online broadens your search to refurbished models of laptops, computers, tablets and phones for even more competitive prices. "Electronic add-ons like HDMI cables, phone cases, car chargers, laptop cases — these are items you only want to buy online," says consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch; doing so can save you up to 60%.
One exception: TVs, which are difficult to ship and may incur a fee. Online deals might not be so cost-effective unless you can lock down free shipping or store pick-up.
Clothing and Apparel: If you're a loyal shopper familiar with the sizing of your favorite brands, buying online can be good for both your budget and your schedule. The convenience factor especially comes in handy if you hate browsing clothing racks, or if you're shopping for kids.
"As any parent can attest, taking a child shopping for clothing can be a chore up to a certain age, so shopping online makes a lot of sense," says Kendal Perez, savings expert with CouponSherpa. Just make sure your purchases guarantee free shipping and returns if necessary.
Baby Products: Online subscription services are a parent's dream — convenient and cost-effective. Recurring shipments with services like Amazon Family can score you discounts and peace of mind knowing you'll have exactly what you need when you need it.
"That being said, many young parents may relish the opportunity to get out of the house, even if it's to pick up diapers and baby powder," Perez notes.
A note about shipping: While free shipping is the gold standard for online shopping, there are a few instances where the extra charge could be worth it: for an item you can't buy locally, for an investment piece you can't find anywhere else, for an item you need right away, or if there are free returns.
What You Should Buy In-Store
Groceries: Hate to break it to the food-subscription die-hards, but buying groceries in-store is still the cheapest way. "It's easier to compare products, monitor sales and use manufacturer's coupons for extra savings," Perez says. That kind of visibility just doesn't translate well online, especially when we're talking discounts on generic or store brands. Plus, shopping the aisles can turn you to better products. If you bought only what you knew online, how would you have discovered your new favorite artisanal jams?
Makeup and Cosmetics: Here's a reason to feel less guilty about your Ulta runs — buying cosmetics in-store is the smarter move. By consulting with sales associates or just sampling products yourself, you'll buy only what you'll use instead of flying blind on internet reviews. Retailers often offer full refunds for anything you're not completely satisfied with, plus testing new products and shades is just fun.
Bonus: Drug stores often offer special rewards points on cosmetic buys, Woroch adds. Those two new lipsticks just paid for your laundry detergent: win-win!
Home Decor: The convenience of browsing 30 types of lamps from your tablet may sound alluring, but trekking through HomeGoods has its benefits. Often, you'll find similar items and better deals in-store.
And if a big investment piece is in your future, like a couch or bed, make the trip (or four) to your local showroom to test comfort, quality, size and color in person. Not only will you make a more informed decision, you can also negotiate with sales associates on pricing and delivery, Woroch says.
Likewise, if you have the means of transporting a piece of furniture yourself, the extra effort can be well worth the savings in shipping, Perez adds.
The never-ending possibilities of the internet may make in-store shopping seem like a thing of the past, but buying online doesn't always mean getting the best deals.
How you shop will also depend on your personality. If you're a hands-on browser and like to use coupons, by all means, hit the mall when the feeling strikes.
Impulse shoppers could fare best online because they can better stick to a list and avoid temptation. (Though you may want to avoid shopping on your phone — recent research says we spend more frivolously on our phones compared to using a computer.) Those generally crunched for time or with limited means of transport can also benefit.