just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

December 8, 2020

Save, then save, then save again #ShoppingGeek

We're well into the holiday shopping season as I write this but it's never too late for tips on saving money.  This year I've been doubling, tripling and even quadrupling my online shopping savings opportunities.  How?  With some new virtual takes on a few old payment standbys.

When everything is clicking, my best online shopping savings scenario is:
  1. Fill up my online cart with items
  2. Get a discount applied automatically
  3. Get part of the remaining balance paid for via saved credits (bonus gift cards)
  4. Get part of the remaining balance paid for via discounted virtual gift card
  5. Earn cash back on whatever balance is left that I actually have to pay
  6. Earn credit towards future bonus gift cards (see #3)
That is, quite literally, savings on top of savings on top of savings (on top of savings on top of savings).  I *do* have to jump through a couple of hoops to get things set up, but I'm frugal enough that I don't mind doing so when I consider some of the larger payments and purchases we make.  Read on to see how I stack up these savings...

If you're short on time, here's the summarized version without the full explanation:
  1. Join and use Honey (it's free)
    Use the Honey web browser extension (this is what I use) to auto-apply coupons, provide instant savings via virtual gift cards, alert you to price drops, and generate credits towards bonus gift cards.
    Here's my link:
    ( Or, here's the link without my reference: )

  2. Get and use a free Privacy account or a "Pro" account ($10/mo) for cash-back
    Use Privacy to create virtual credit cards and earn 1% cash back up to $45/mo.  Privacy protects your actual CC info and lets you set spending limits per merchant.  Use it anywhere you'd use a normal credit card online -- even for things like monthly cable TV bill, electric and water bills. etc.  Must sign up for a "Pro" account (that's what I have) to get the cash back deal but you can get a basic account for free and still get the other benefits.
    Here's my link (gives you a $5 credit):
    ( Or, if you don't want the $5 credit: )
Other savings can be involved but you'll have to read all the dirty details, below, to find out what they are.

Tip #1:  Coupons
No surprise, here.  Online sites such as RetailMeNot (another Austin institution -- like me!), Coupon Cabin and the like have been hawking online coupons for many years.  More recently, though, some of those sites have joined the ranks of services such as Honey, Ebates, and Wikibuy which offer web browser extensions that automatically try lists of coupons for you during online checkout.  I use Honey which now happens to be owned by PayPal, another service I've used for many years.  PayPal paid $4 billion (with a "b") for Honey so online coupon services is definitely expected to be a big scene for years to come.

How to save:  Pick a reputable coupon service (they're usually free) and let it plug in coupon savings when you check out.  I use Honey because it has some additional money-saving features I'll touch on in Tip #2 and at the end of the post:

Bonus savings:  Besides providing coupons for immediate savings, services such as Honey may also reward you with "points" based on how much you spend.  Points are typically redeemed for cash or credit towards future purchases.

Tip #2:  Discounted virtual gift cards
This is something that's still pretty new:  Discounted virtual gift cards created at the time you check out for the exact amount of your shopping cart.   You might need to re-read that a couple of times for it to sink in.

Basically, at the time of checkout, your coupon browser extension will alert you if the vendor supports discounted virtual gift cards and will tell you how much you can save.  Savings is typically in the range of 4% to 7% which is not too shabby, especially if you're also able to apply a coupon.  You can opt to purchase the gift card (at a discounted rate) for the exact amount of your shopping cart -- the gift card is immediately generated and you simply copy the gift card info into your shopping card to pay for the purchase.  Your savings are immediate.

Right now I'm only aware of Honey offering this option but I'm sure more services will strike similar deals with merchants as time goes on.  Currently there are about 25 well-known merchants offering discounted virtual gift cards through Honey including:  Domino's Pizza, Old Navy, Ulta, Lowes, Papa John's, Office Depot, and PetSmart.

NOTE:  There is one notable downside:  If you are ever due a refund from a cancelled order the vendor will not be able to refund to your credit card because you paid using a gift card.  In such cases you should only expect to be able to receive store credit for any refunded amount.  You should consider using the gift card option only at vendors you would be happy to purchase from in the future if your current purchase should result in a refund.

How to save (using Honey):  If you are shopping at one of the supported vendors, the Honey browser extension will alert you during checkout that a gift card savings is available.  Use Honey to generate a discounted gift card and then pay for the purchase via the gift card.

Tip #3:  Cashback virtual credit cards
Cash-back credit cards have been around for decades.  Often the cards have pretty restrictive demands regarding on-time monthly payments and, if you make a late payment, your cash-back savings will be obliterated by late payment fees and/or increased interest rates.

You can get the cash-back advantage without any of the late-payment fee risks, though. is a virtual credit card service that's been around since 2014.  Instead of using your credit card at online merchants, you have the option to generate a different virtual credit card for each merchant and also set spending limits on each virtual card.  Are you making a one-time purchase?  Generate a one-time-use card!  Are you setting up a recurring monthly payment (auto-pay) with your cable TV provider?  Create a virtual card just for that provider and set a monthly spend limit.  Create different cards with different spend limits for your electric bill, your water bill, your car payment, etc.  If one virtual card is ever compromised you can deactivate it and create a new card just for the affected service without having to update the payment info for all of your other monthly bills.  If you set spend limits then you're also protected from someone running up a large bill with stolen card info. offers its service for free for limited use (up to 12 unique virtual cards per month).  I have the "Pro" option which costs $10 a month but expands to 36 virtual cards and adds 1% cash back up to $45 per month.  As long as I use Privacy as my payment option $1000 or more per month the service pays for itself and then some.  I easily exceed this amount just between regular monthly bills, Amazon shopping, and online grocery orders.  That means I always end the month having earned more cash back than what the service actually costs.

The main reason I use Privacy is to have increased protection and control over my payment info for online purchases.  That said, though, I do really enjoy getting a bit of extra cash credited back at the end of every month.

Use my referral link to get yourself (and me) a $5 credit, even on the free account option:

Tip #4:  Credits towards more gift cards (free gift cards)
This is another money-saving technique that has been around for several years.  Some web browser extensions (and, now, some mobile phone apps) that act as "shopping buddies" offer to share referral credit with you if you use their app/extension when shopping online.  Basically the maker of the app will get paid for referring you to a merchant when you make a purchase. If the app maker gets a 5%  referral free, the app maker may offer to give you, say, 3% as enticement to use the app.  The app maker keeps the other 2% -- it's a win/win situation.

I use the Honey web browser extension (for a variety of reasons) and Honey shares its referral credits as "Honey Gold".  You can redeem 1,000 "Gold" for a $10 gift card.  There are more than 20 gift card options including Walmart, Target, Amazon, iTunes and the Google Store.

The amount of "Gold" you earn varies from merchant to merchant.  Some purchases may earn "Gold" and a "Gold bonus".  A recent Logitech purchase of $37 included a 3% bonus for a total of 104 "Gold" (a $1.04 credit).  That's not much by itself but, considering how many online purchases I make in a typical month, I'm pretty pleased to get money back for such purchases without the late-payment-penalty risks typically involved with cash-back credit cards.

Bonus Tip:  Honey and Amazon
Besides offering coupons, credit towards gift cards, and discounted virtual gift cards, Honey also provides price tracking for items.  When you browse an item on Amazon Honey will check its database and give you a price history for that item.  Honey will show you whether the current price is good or not based on recent pricing history for that item.  

Not yet ready to buy?  Add the item to Honey's "Droplist" and Honey will notify you if the price goes down.  Prices on Amazon actually change quite often due to many competing vendors -- having a tracking tool like Honey can be really helpful in identifying opportune moments for savings.

By using Honey and I end up getting:
  • Cash back from (always)
  • Free gift cards from Honey (over time)
  • Discounted gift cards from Honey (with certain merchants)
  • Coupon savings from Honey (when coupons are available for a merchant)
  • Price-history-checking and price-drop alerts for items
I also get much more control over the online payment information I share with merchants and can set spending limits with individual merchants or even on individual purchases.

Taking advantage of the available savings involves some extra steps (installing the Honey web browser extension, creating virtual credit cards for different merchants) but the savings are there to be had and, for me, the potential benefits that come from automatic coupons, bonus gift cards, price drop alerts and especially the added protection for payment info make it well worth the bit of extra effort to get things set up.

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