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Funny Money: Spotting Wastes of Money Disguised as Good Deals

fish on a hookMarketing wizards spend their days conjuring up hypnotic spells meant to part you with your money. These spells, which are cast via marketing pitches, trick you into thinking you’re getting something extra for your money by taking advantage of a special offer.

Cheap sons of pitches like me, who are constantly seeking deals, are particularly vulnerable to such dark magic. Even though I think I know what to look out for, I fall — hard — for new ones more often than I’d care to admit.

Here are examples of many deals I have fallen victim to that seemed really great at the time.

Perishable bulk food.

Warehouse wholesalers such as Costco and Sam’s Club tempt you with cheesecakes big enough to burrow in and jump out of, metric tons of milk, enough grated parmesan to fill a sandbox and bundles of sliced bread so voluminous they must be delivered by forklift. These purchases might make sense if you run a restaurant chain, militia or prison. But if it’s just you and your roommate, there’s no way you’re getting through all that yogurt before it expires and morphs into nuclear waste. You’re not saving money if you end up throwing away half your food or poisoning yourself by stubbornly eating it after it expires.

BOGO deals at fast food restaurants.

Aw, isn’t that chain with semi-edible food you sorta tolerate being so sweet? All you need to do to get a free burrito bowl is buy another burrito bowl and two oversized, overpriced drinks! Spoiler alert: This is not sweetness. It’s called being a jerkface. Reneg on the promise to yourself you made after graduating high school and do some math, and you’ll calculate that your “free” $4.50 burrito bowl only saved you and your friend a cumulative dime after wasting $4.40 on drinks you didn’t even want.

Limited-time sales.

This madness is particularly rampant during the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas stretch, in which retailers offer discounts on “gifts” that they want people to buy for themselves. If it’s something you need or were actually planning to buy for someone else by Dec. 25, fine, but otherwise you’re best off steering clear. Most products that go on “sale” stay on sale until they’re cleared out and replaced by better stuff. In the long run, everything is a clearance item, and the best way to get the deepest discounts is to wait until they’re obsolete and just taking up space.

Free-to-play video games.

I’ve harped about this before. Tons of free smartphone and tablet games trick you into spending way more money than you would by getting you to pay up for upgrades, in-game items and other nonsense you’ll come to regret. Better to pay $1-$5 for a full game that lets you actually enjoy it, rather than constantly jumping you like a beggar with a window-cleaning rag at an intersection.

Buy this, get that for “free.”

One of the sneakier types of sales gets you to buy more of something than you planned by offering you an additional item you don’t need. Used video game stores are big on this, and online retailers — say, adding free shipping if you buy enough extra junk to spend far more than you wanted — also thrive on the trick. Whenever you find yourself about to buy something you don’t want in order to get something else you don’t want for free, use this rule of thumb to decide whether or not to go through with the silliness: Don’t.

Free trials.

Subscription services are big on hooking you with free trials that get you used to the goods with “no obligation” to continue. Usually you only get the service if you hand over your credit card information, making it easy for the charges to start rolling in if you forget to cancel one your trial has expired. It’s always clever business to get a customer’s laziness and apathy working in its favor.

Discount oil changes. Also, free brake inspections. Pretty much anything, it turns out, a car shop is willing to ‘give away.’

Car mechanic operations are among the most clever of shysters. Cheap oil changes and free inspections work as loss leaders, roping you in so the guys in the back can give your car the once-over and discover all sorts of awful problems it’s got that absolutely must be fixed this second (and we may as well fix it now, ’cause you’re a busy person and you’re already here), lest your vehicle fall apart and you be forced to travel by unicycle. It’s OK to take advantage of such a discount and let the shop hand you its laundry list of suggested work. Just don’t agree to have work done that you didn’t realize you needed on the spot. Take a step back, make sure the repairs are needed, then shop around for the best price and quality of service.

What are some pitfalls you’ve hit, thinking they were a deal?

Published or updated on April 18, 2013

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. Bucksprout says:

    Free trails! They always get me. Of course I want 3 months of free service but I sometimes forget that my free trail expires and I get a huge bill for something I consider a luxury. This is post is humorous and brings back memories of all of the regretful purchases.

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