A good sale can be hard to resist. Don't you love it when one of your friends compliments your outfit and you get to say, "Thanks, it was on sale"? But before you go crazy at the next BOGO sale at Bath & Body Works (been there), you might want to make sure you're actually saving money. Which can be tricky, because the way sales are advertised, it can be hard to read between the lines and figure out if you're really getting a good deal.
"Marketers, advertisers and retailers all use psychology to get you to spend your money," says Joyce Marter, psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix, a book about approaching money in a mindful way.
Marter says pausing and reflecting on what is driving you to make a purchase, or whether a something is going to cost you more in the long run, is one way to find a deal that will actually save money—and a way to prevent impulse buying.
Here are more steps to figure out whether a deal is saving you money—or just making you spend it.
Can you pay for the item in full?
First things first: Can you pay for this item in full (sale and all) and not go into debt? If your plan is to purchase it using a credit card that you don't think you will be able to pay off in full, it's probably best to skip.
"If you're buying something that's a want, not a need, and you need to use a 'buy now, pay later' program to afford it, you're essentially taking out a loan to buy something," says Lauren Bringle, accredited financial counselor at Self Financial, a digital platform focused on helping people build good credit.
Sale or not, if an item is going to make you pay a lot of money in credit card interest fees in the future, it's not worth it. "If you charge a sale item on your credit card, pay it off completely, then get rewards for your purchase, that could be a win-win," says Bringle.
Is it an item you use regularly, or plan on using often?
If you see a deal on something that you use often, it will likely save you money. For example, stocking up on your favorite skincare products, like moisturizer, when they're on sale will save you money because you'll be set for a while.
Marter says that a buy-one, get-one deal is good when you know you like the product and will use it. But if it's a product or item you haven't used before or are not planning on using very often, the sale doesn't really matter.
Bringle says to assess an item's cost per use. "If you buy a $100 pair of boots and wear them once, you spent $100 for a single wear," says Bringle. But if you buy something on sale that you use can use for months or years, you will save money over time. Even though it's marked down, if it's something you won't use, you'll just end up with clutter—and clutter can cost you.
Were you planning on buying it anyway?
It's definitely a steal if you're shopping for something you need and see that it happens to be on sale. "You should keep in mind that you're only saving money if you planned to buy the item anyway," says Anna Barker, founder of personal finance site LogicalDollar.
If you're buying something just because it's on sale, you're actually spending more money, because you never intended to buy the item in the first place. Getting something you had already budgeted for at a lower price will actually save you money, as opposed to something you decide to buy because it's on sale.
Is it the lowest price you have seen on the item after comparison shopping?
To really know if you're getting a good deal on something, make sure you do your research and see how much it costs in other places. Barker recommends using Honey, a free browser extension that finds deals on items you're shopping for online, and shows you if it's available for cheaper somewhere else.
Comparison shopping can help you find an even better deal, or show you how much similar items cost, so you can decide if the purchase is worth it or if you want to wait.
Does it get in the way of your financial goals?
Figure out whether the item(s) on sale align with your priorities and financial goals. If it's within your budget for the month, regardless of whether it's a need or a want, then great—you've got yourself a deal. But if it's something you can do without, and you're already over budget, it's probably better to skip.
Bringle advises asking yourself whether buying something will help you achieve your goal or get in the way of it. If you're saving up for a big purchase such as a car, a house, or a vacation, take a second to reflect on whether the money is better off being saved.
Bottom line: Getting discounts on purchases can definitely save you money. But if you're looking for a good deal, just make sure it's on something you will use often, can afford, and were actually planning to buy. Otherwise, that deal isn't so much a deal as an uneccessary purchase.