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When Comparison Shopping Is Worth Your Time

A reformed penny-pincher shows why you need to pick your battles


(This article originally appeared on Insurance.com.)

When someone asks me how to take control of his finances, I don't advise that he bake his own bread. Yet that’s the sort of tips you tend to get when Googling "how to save money."

Yes, you will save money, but probably not as much as you'd think. And you’ll find tactics like baking bread can take time away from everything else you need or want to do.

To save money wisely, I suggest instead that people think first about the big-ticket items. The results of a recent survey from Insurance.com back me up.

(MORE: 27 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Saving Money)

The car insurance shopping site asked 2,000 adults how much time they spent on five big purchases (car insurance, cell phone plans, cable TV or other programming, new cars and gasoline) and how much they saved on them. Then the site ranked the five for their potential bang for the buck — how much consumers saved per minute based on the time they spent and their average annual savings.

For example, the typical amount of time spent researching and shopping for a new car was 13.6 hours and the amount saved $1,054 — which works out to about $1.29 a minute.

Here is the breakdown for each:

CAR INSURANCE
Average shopping time: 10 minutes
Average annual savings: $540
Savings per minute: $54
 
CELLPHONE PLANS
Average shopping time: 97 minutes
Average annual savings: $179
Savings per minute: $1.86

(MORE: 6 Moments When We Spend Too Much)
 
CABLE TV OR OTHER PROGRAMMING
Average shopping time: 144 minutes
Average annual savings: $248
Savings per minute: $1.72
 
NEW CARS
Average shopping time: 13.6 hours
One-time savings: $1,054
Savings per minute: $1.29
 
GASOLINE
Average shopping, driving or wait time: 320 minutes
Average annual savings: $119
Savings per minute: 37 cents

Shopping for car insurance topped the list. (Yes, the survey was done by a car-insurance comparison site, but the results were independent.) Not only is the potential payoff highest for shopping for car insurance at $540, the time invested is just 10 minutes. You can get a quote from just about any insurance company online or by phone in that time (shameless plug: sites like Insurance.com let you get quotes from many at once by using a single form).

(MORE: 66 Ways to Save Money)

Frankly, 10 minutes is less than you’d spend digging the bread machine out of the back of the cupboard. And if it turns out you’re already getting a great deal, you’ve only burned 10 minutes to discover that. Win.

Your time has value. It may even have potential penalties. Suppose waiting in line for Costco gasoline makes you 10 minutes late getting to the child care center. There's probably a fine attached to late pickup, to say nothing of the frustration of watching the clock (and the traffic) while waiting to fill up.

Sure, Costco or Safeway gas can be up to 15 cents cheaper per gallon. But you could also download a free gas app and get the next-best deal.
Even if you don't have to worry about day-care fines, ask yourself this: "What's the best use of my time when it comes to saving money?"

"Everyone wants the best bang for the buck. We went looking for the best payoff for your time," says Des Toups, Insurance.com’s managing editor.

The site also went looking to see how much time shoppers were willing to put into looking for a better price on a range of goods.

The winners? Pretty much anything easily comparable online — like airfares, laptops and car insurance.

Here’s how much time, on average, the 2,000 adults surveyed were willing to put into shopping for a better price on (from the longest time to the shortest):

Airfare: 68 minutes
Laptop computer: 68 minutes
Auto insurance: 63 minutes
Hotel rooms: 53 minutes
Rental car: 48 minutes
Clothing: 41 minutes
Children’s toys: 36 minutes
Prescription drugs: 34 minutes
Groceries: 33 minutes
Pet food: 26 minutes
Beer or alcohol: 17 minutes
Cigarettes: 16 minutes

The value is even greater when you think of short- and long-term values. Sure, it's nice to save $100 on a new flat-screen TV or a plane ticket home for the holidays. But those are one-time savings. Saving $540 a year on car insurance or $15 a month on a cellphone plan is a gift that keeps on giving.

Now, wanting to save money in every area of your life isn't necessarily a bad thing. I once did this as a survival tactic and now do it as part of a balanced budget. But I'm increasingly aware that some frugal hacks can create anxiety or a scarcity mentality.

For example, according to one blogger, homemade laundry soap cost four cents per load vs. 12 cents per load for Tide. But Tide goes on sale and coupons are regularly available, which is how I bought detergent as a broke midlife student.

More to the point, my partner and I do only about six loads of laundry per month. Do I want to go to the trouble of shopping for the ingredients and making the detergent to save $5.76 per year? (Hint: No.)

As a reformed penny-pincher, I beg you to pick your battles.

Spending 10 minutes getting a car insurance quote or even 97 minutes comparing cellphone plans will likely save you more overall than clipping a cereal coupon or stopping by the bakery outlet. Those last two are perfectly fine strategies, but they shouldn't be the first (or only) ways to save money.

Full disclosure: I still clip coupons and shop at the "used bread" store. But these days I keep an eye on not just on the value but also the emotional impact of my frugal hacks.

I suggest you do the same. If you obsess over a missed sale or a forgotten coupon or castigate your mate for forgetting to bring home that recyclable soda can, you need to take a look at your relationship with money. Is the hypervigilance worth the small savings?

Yes, a dollar is a lot of money if you're a buck short on this month's rent. Generally, though, if you mind your big-dollar savings, then the penny-ante items will take care of themselves.

Donna Freedman writes for Money Talks News and blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.

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