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FAHMIDA AZIM / "Johar Joshanda" / Editorial Illustration for Eater

You keep making the same mistake. When you're in the drug store picking up contact solution or toilet paper or a candy bar or condoms or a pregnancy test or hair dye or however you spend your week day evenings, you pass a sale on the invariably overpriced cold medicine and just walk on by.

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Cold and flu season is already hard enough on your body, your mental health, and your wallet, with drug stores carrying an average of 300 cold medicine products at any given time. Why are there so many products? It's not about what you need to remedy symptoms but about your spending power as a consumer, with reports tallying more than $30 billion spent on over-the-counter medication in 2017. The cornucopia of cold and flu products usually results in choice paralysis, as you stand in the aisle facing a barrage of information until you finally select whatever packaging looks more trustworthy or whichever one's had the most memorable commercial.

Don't fall for it. Consider these tips from pharmacists, doctors, and legions of people who barely get by on living wages but who've learned to hack the system during cold/flu season:

1. Buy Generic

Consider this: Pharmacists and doctors who have studied the ingredients in brand name medicine often buy the generic versions for themselves (up to 90% of the time, according to some surveys). With the power of Dr. Google (and all those skills acquired from those spot-the-differences games as a child), you can save a lot of money by just studying the ingredients on the boxes of brand name and generic versions. Learn the generic names of your medication, and you can save 20% to 50% on your cold medicine.

2. Search for Manufacturer's Coupons

If you simply prefer brand names and take comfort in the extra placebo effect, by all means indulge yourself. But you can also go to the manufacturer's website to find coupons. While you're waiting in the check-out line, take one moment to search on your phone to find that brand name medications like Zyrtec, Allegra, Tylenol, and Advil usually offer coupons and savings clubs through their websites.

3. Sign Up for a Discount Program

Similarly, discount programs like FamilyWize, GoodRx, and WellRx are easy-to-use apps that bring discount codes straight to your phone. These programs work with common drug stories like Walgreens, CVS, Target, Rite Aid, and Walmart.

4. Timing (Stock Up!)

Most manufacturers start offering coupons in late October, and when combined with in-store coupons, you can save double. So don't walk past sales on cold medicine just because that office bug hasn't hit you yet. It's best to stock up! Also keep in mind that cold medicine does expire, so check for boxes with the latest expiration date you can find.

5. Ask Your Pharmacist

A little known fact is that pharmacies will create their own saving programs to incentivize customers to shop there. As Caroline Carpenter, financial adviser and creator of the website mycouponexpert.com, told USA Today, "Almost all pharmacies do this, but you have to ask. 'Why?' They don't advertise it." Additionally, some pharmacists will even match competitors' prices if you can prove you can find it cheaper elsewhere.

6. Shop Smart: Don't Duplicate Ingredients

With similar ingredients appearing in multiple cold remedies, it's possible to overdo it and cause more harm than relief. So another reason you should familiarize yourself with the ingredients list is to make sure you don't go overboard with the acetaminophen (Tylenol). That won't help your wallet or your liver.

Ken Majkowski, chief pharmacy officer of FamilyWize, advises, "Most products have multiple ingredients that do the same thing. You just need two: one for day and one for night." Ideally, you should stock up on a non-drowsy decongestant for the daytime and a nice, sleepy Nyquil knock-off for the night.

7. Ask a Doctor for Free Samples

The next time you check in with a doctor to make sure your cough is just a cough and not the black lung or throat cancer (because who doesn't fall into a WebMD spiral from time to time?), ask for a free sample instead of a good-job lollipop. Doctors' offices often have an overstock of common medications like ibuprofen, and there's no harm in asking.

The reality is that medicine is undoubtedly, unfairly expensive, and it's only getting worse. Lea Prevel Katsanis, a former pharmaceutical marketing executive and author of Global Issues in Pharmaceutical Marketing, says, "Drug companies employ many scientists, physicians, marketing people, and others who really are motivated by helping others, but there are some industry leaders who don't get it. They just don't understand that when they raise the price of a drug by 300 percent, they get pushback."

But the good news is: We're all in this together (aside from the 0.8% of the world's population who hold 44.8% of the world's entire wealth, but screw them). So, yes, always wash your hands, get as much sleep as you can, and eat well, but when that cold inevitably hits you, demand to talk to the pharmacist and your local doctor. Self-advocate and demand the best healthcare you can get, and don't stop asking until you get it. As the wise slogan of the Area 51 raid said, "They can't stop all of us." With enough discontent, the system will be forced to change.

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You know that feeling you get when you buy brand name item at a discount? It's like you've beaten the system. You're absolved of any shopping guilt because you've saved money rather than spent it, even if that isn't actually the case. With the rise of discount outlet stores—which raked in over $50 billion in the past five years—retailers are keenly aware of our desire to buy things at prices that seem too good to be believed.

Turns out those deep discounts on brand name labels aren't always a steal. In February, Barneys New York was slapped with a class-action lawsuit accusing the luxury retailer of deceptive discounts at their lower-priced outlet stores. The plaintiff, Kristen Schertzer, claims she spent $450 at Barneys Warehouse on items that suggested a 50 percent markdown, when in fact, she alleges the products were never originally intended to be sold at Barneys.

"Barneys' scheme has the effect of tricking consumers into believing they are getting a significant deal by purchasing merchandise at a steep discount, when in reality, consumers are paying for merchandise at its regular retail price," according to the Schertzer's claims.

This not the first time consumers have raised concerns over brand name products sold by discount retailers, many of which produce lower-quality products for outlets, despite the implication they're more expensively made.

Banana Republic, Gap, Michael Kors, Cole Haan and Neiman Marcus have all been accused of selling lower-quality, outlet-only products as if they were deeply discounted items from their higher-end stores, when in fact they're not.

"I think outlet stores are configured to try and nicely mislead most people into thinking they're getting amazing overruns, amazing bargains," Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, told Marketplace in 2014. "When you walk into an outlet store, you have to think, this stuff was made to be cheaper."

In their independent investigation, Marketplace "found items in outlet stores made with less durable leathers and different fabrics than the comparable products sold at the retail stores."

Ellwood wasn't surprised by the findings. "The quality of products at outlets varies widely. Remember, this stuff was largely made just to be sold cheaply. So they're going to cut corners," he said.

Coach, one of the labels in Marketplace's inquiry, acknowledged the discrepancies. "Generally, our manufactured-for-outlet product will be less embellished — using less overall hardware and/or simpler hardware, may not have an exterior pocket, or may have a narrower gusset, may have a simpler (non-branded) lining, or may use a flat versus tumbled leather — compared to the retail bag that inspired it," a Coach rep explained.

Meanwhile, Nordstrom Rack—Nordstrom's outlet chain—confirmed to Racked in 2014 "that only 20% of what it sells is clearance merchandise coming from their stores and website, while the rest is bought expressly for the outlet."

In 2018, Neiman Marcus settled a class action lawsuit over false claims in its Last Call outlet stores and promised more transparency on items made for cheaper outlets rather than the flagship stores.

An earlier suit against Michael Kors over their outlet practices resulted in an almost $5 million settlement and an agreement by Kors to replace the MSRP price on outlet tags with "value". So when you see that word on Kors outlet price-tags, it's an indication that the product was made expressly for the outlet and suggests the quality of that item isn't the same as one you might find by the flagship label.

Confused yet? You're not alone. If you really want to know whether your discount is for real, or just a cheaper knock-off with the brand name stamp of approval, the FTC has some helpful guidelines. Here are some things to look out for, according to FTC consumer education specialist, Colleen Tressler:

  • Recognize that if you're buying something that looks new and undamaged, the price may be lower for a reason. For example, plastic might replace leather trim on a jacket, or a t-shirt may have less stitching and a lighter weight fabric. If top-quality is important, you may want to keep shopping. But if it's the style or the look that's key, quality may be a lower priority.
  • If you're unsure whether the store sells "made-for-outlet" only merchandise or how to tell the difference between it and regular retail merchandise for sale, ask the staff.
  • Shop for off-season merchandise. It typically comes at bargain prices.
  • Ask about return policies. Some outlet stores let you return unused merchandise any time as long as the price tag hasn't been removed and you have the receipt. Other stores have 90-day or 120-day return policies. Some don't allow any returns.
  • Many regular retail stores won't take returns from their outlet stores. That's something to ask your neighborhood retailer about, too.

So the next time you hit the racks and find a brand name handbag with a price tag that seems too good to be true, don't be surprised if it is. The label may be impressive, but the quality less so. That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy something if you love it, just research what you're really paying for before you hit the checkout counter.

The holidays should not be about fender benders in mall parking lots, going broke on overnight shipping for last minute gifts, or racking up credit card debt. They should be about not fitting into your pants come the New Year.

Just kidding. (Kind of.) In addition to eggnog and star-shaped cookies, the holidays are about love and family and togetherness. And yet Americans are planning to pull out out their wallets early and often. A Gallup poll found that US adults estimate that they will spend about $885 on gifts in 2018, with a third of respondents planning to spend at least $1,000.

Now, add a little bit more to the balance sheet, since we tend to underestimate our spending. With big, tempting sales on every page of the internet, impulse buying and overspending are hard to avoid. In December of 2017, 24 percent of millennial shoppers reported they hadn't paid off their credit card from last Christmas.

Don't let this be you. Nix the stress of overspending by sticking to these guidelines.

Set a Budget

Credit Cards

Without an idea of how much to spend, the chances of overdoing it — oh, look at these cute elf-shaped pancake molds! — are as high-flying as Santa's sleigh.

Scott Hannah, head of the Credit Counseling Society, told Canada's Global News that a reasonable gift budget is around 1 percent of your gross annual income.

But if even that allowance seems too high, don't be afraid to slash it. Gifts aren't necessities, and there are a lot of variables and discrepancies that would make reasonable spending plans for families with similar incomes look very different, said Hannah.

Factor in Gift Wrapping

One budget line item you need to include is money for gift wrapping and cards. Those $5 letterpress beauties add up fast.

One of IKEA's best kept secrets is their holiday wrapping, and who doesn't love a classic and homespun brown butcher paper tied with a red yarn bow?

Make a List, Check It Twice

me & my BIG Ideas

Now it's time for the nitty-gritty. Make a list that includes: who you're buying for, what you're buying, and how much you'll spend in total. That last figure is key. It should equal roughly 80 percent of your budget, advises Chime, to allow yourself a little wiggle room.

Band Together

The perfect, perfect gift can sometimes come with a price tag that's beyond your budget. See if you can get a few relatives or friends to "go in" together on a special gift with you, advises The Spruce. The lucky recipient would surely rather have that Hudson Bay blanket they've always wanted instead of four smaller gifts they don't need or desire.

Nix "One for Them, One for Me"

Nearly 60 percent of people indulge in "self-gifting," reports the National Retail Federation, spending $130 on ourselves on average. When hitting stores for gift cards, 72 percent of shoppers report getting something for themselves before checkout.

Money-saving master Scott Alan Turner institutes a "no shopping on Amazon for yourself" rule for the month of December.

"If I want something, I can add it to my wishlist or ask for it for Christmas. Our rule also helps avoid splurging and spending less," he advises. "This is the season for giving, not receiving. If you find something you can't live without, add it to your wishlist. If nobody buys it for you, pick it up on sale after Christmas for yourself."

But….there are some killer sales right now and you really do need a new down coat. Far be it from us to say don't treat yourself, but be aware of how much you're spending on yourself when shopping.

Shop Early

Start now! Make your list! Make your budget! You'll be able to get the gifts you want sent via slower and cheaper shipping. The real crusher is when you wait and have no choice but to cough up for overnight shipping costs.

Don't Lose Your Mind With the Kids

Try Scott Alan Turner's rule of four: Give one want, one need, one wear, and one read.

Remember Your Intentions

Forgive the corny sentiment, but 'tis the season: it really is the thought that counts. This time of year, remember what's truly behind each gift you give.

"The point is to acknowledge that other person's positive influence on your life," writes Jennifer Wolf at The Spruce. "'Thank you' and 'I love you' are phrases that don't come with dollar amounts attached to them, so don't allow yourself to be caught up in spending more on holiday gifts than you can afford."

Black Friday has a reputation for being the best time of the year to score some serious deals, but according to the New York Times, "not every discounted TV is worth buying, and not every gadget on sale on Black Friday is at its best price." Retailers know that any sale on the day after Thanksgiving will draw crowds because of the days reputation, so they often hold off on offering their best prices until later in the year. But just because Black Friday isn't all it's cracked up to be doesn't mean you can't still find some great deals. Check out our tips below to make sure your Black Friday shopping is actually saving you money!

1. Review Price History

Business Insider

Sometimes retailers hike up prices in anticipation of Black Friday sales so that the discounts appear all the more drastic. To make sure you don't fall for this trick, start doing your research now on any products you may want to purchase on Friday. Compare the items price at various retailers to get an idea of what the product usually costs, and then keep that number in mind when looking at Black Friday deal options. You can also check websites like CamelCamelCamel and Invisible Hand to compare price trends.

2. The Best Discounts Tend to Be in Electronics

While you may be tempted to hit the mall on Black Friday and score some deals on clothes or home goods, the deals in these categories probably aren't worth the hassle. An editor at Wirecutter, Adam Burakowski, says, "For this year, I'd say take a good look at the small appliances (instant pot), smart home, and headphone categories. We've seen some really strong pricing in those areas already with some of the best pricing of the year."

3. Remember Black Friday Travel Deals

Evan Crawford, regional marketing director for San Antonio's Hotel Contessa, told Today, "Most consumers don't immediately connect travel deals with Black Friday, but some of the best savings during Black Friday through Cyber Monday actually come from the hotel and travel industry." For example, Hotels.com is offering a deal starting on Nov. 23rd that will allow people who visit the website to participate in a lottery for discounts on lodging. The discounts will range from as little as 7% to as much as a 99%.

4. Check the Model Number

Sometimes, even if the brand name is trustworthy, stores will offer deals on inferior makes and models that they haven't been able to move off their shelves. We recommend doing a Google or Amazon search on the brand and model number and reading the customer reviews. If the product is brand new to the website and doesn't have any reviews, it may be a product specifically made for Black Friday, and is likely low quality.

5. Check Out Small Business Saturday


Small Biz Daily

Head out to your local shops on Small Business Saturday and find deals that save you more money than the deals at big box stores. Small businesses recognize the importance of getting shoppers in the door on Black Friday in hopes that they'll earn some year long patrons, so are much more likely to offer serious savings. Plus, you can feel good that you're helping out a small business in a competitive landscape.

This Black Friday, make sure to shop smart and do your research to ensure you get the most out of America's biggest shopping day!