Shopping for expensive items can be a tense, frustrating experience. You’re never sure you’re choosing the best product or getting the best deal. Jason recently wrote looking for help:

After reading some Consumer Reports blogs, particularly about vacuum cleaners, I came across a comment about “staying within your budget” when you’re trying to decide what vacuum to buy.

My question is: How do you budget for occasional necessary expenses? You had a post recently about thinking in annual terms instead of monthly, and that really helps with automotive maintenance. But if you’re only buying a vacuum every 5 or 10 years, how do you know how much is a good amount to spend? Where does it fit in your budget? It’s not groceries!

Meanwhile, Nick wrote with another problem people face while shopping:

I would like a new televison. I have wanted one for several years.  Mine is a little 19″ thing that is at least 20 years old. 

I have gone out shopping for a TV multiple times. I look at barebone TVs and don’t care for them much. There is always one that is just a little bit better or a little bit bigger for $20 or $30 dollars more. I start by looking at the $300 models, but eventually I’m looking at a 46-inch flatscreen for $2200. That’s just too much money. So, I just leave.

This happens to me all the time. It happens when I’m shopping for computers (“oh, another gig of RAM is only $20!”), it happens when I’m shopping for power tools (“this cordless drill has an oscillation overthruster!”), and it even happens when I’m looking at cars or houses. (I’ve heard many people confess that they start looking for a home in a certain price range, but then end up paying more than they had intended.)

So, what is the best way to shop for occasional big-ticket expeneses? How can Jason decide where a vacuum cleaner fits in his budget? How can Nick decide which television to purchase?

Here are some personal guidelines I use to steer my shopping:

  • Know what you want before you start. If you’re buying a vacuum cleaner, what are you going to use it for? What features do you need in a television? What features do you want? Before our trip to England last summer, I decided to buy a digital camera. I jotted a quick wishlist: wide-angle lens, large display, easy-to-use menu, good video quality. Some of these items (like wide-angle lens) were much more important than others.
  • Set a budget. Ideally, you’d set a budget for your purchase before you started shopping. That’s not realistic. You can’t know how much a dishwasher costs until you actually look at a few. But once you have a sense of the landscape, decide how much you’re willing to spend. If you don’t set a budget to start, it’s easy to succumb to “desire inflation”. When shopping for my digital camera, I had a budget of $300.
  • Research your options. Once you’ve created a features list and a budget, search for options that meet your requirements. In most cases, Consumer Reports is a great place to start. Your local public library probably has a copy of the annual Consumer Reports Buying Guide. But don’t discount the web. I often do product research through Amazon.
  • Make a selection. Once you’ve done your research, you’ll probably find one or two items that seem most promising. (There’s rarely one perfect choice.) I tend to write down the manufacturer and model number of my top three choices before I move on to the next step. Last year, I was able to narrow my choices down to two camera models, both of which were within my budget.
  • Compare prices. Now that you have a shortlist, begin researching prices. Again, check Amazon. Check other online vendors. Check your local stores. Don’t forget to consider used or refurbished items.
  • Make the purchase. Once you find the best source for the item you want, buy it. Be confident that you’ve researched price and features so that you know you’re getting a good deal.
  • Protect your investment. The older I get, the better I am about saving warranty information and boxes. (If we had a smaller house, I’d only save boxes for a couple weeks. Because we have space above the garage, I save them forever.) A little foresight when you buy a product can save a lot of headache down the road.

What about you? How do you shop for those occasional big-ticket items? If you were in the market for a new vacuum cleaner or a new television, how would you go about it? How would you set a budget? How would you shop?