One goal we have when we shop is to be able to save money on the purchases we make. But we all face the challenge of making sure that when we spend our money, we are also doing so wisely and safely. Recently, the fallout on product recalls, scams and shoddy workmanship have led to finger pointing, scapegoating, lawsuits and even penalties or imprisonment. Many of these moves have resulted in better regulations and practices, but ultimately, we share the responsibility for keeping ourselves safe. We need to be more aware of what it is we buy or whom we hire and try not to get all excited just because something sounds too good to be true.
Our level of awareness begins with asking a few questions: do we really know what kind of product we’re buying? Or who is behind the service we’re hiring? Do we ever bother to give it a second thought? That said, here are some basic tips aimed at making us better consumers.
On Merchandise: What Are We Buying?
#1 Buy from reputable sources.
Know where the stuff your buying is coming from. I recall a family member calling me recently to ask about installing software which he apparently picked up from an unknown source. What I mean by “unknown” is that it came from a friend of a friend of a friend from a far flung country. Though the product was purchased legitimately, I told him that the source is still suspect, and even if it were FREE, I wouldn’t install it on my machine. This just begs for potentially bigger problems, the least of which would be a computer crash. Trojan horses, anyone? Incidentally, this family member has already been a handy victim of identity theft (his SSN was hi-jacked and linked to no less than FIVE foreign-sounding names through his bank), so I can only hope that he listens to me.
#2 Check recall lists.
ConsumerReports.org and other consumer sites are out there telling us what’s been banned, recalled, pulled from our shelves. Keep your eyes open for warnings in the mail, online, from your local news and newspapers.
#3 Keep your eyes open for counterfeits and pirated products.
Knock-offs are cheap and can be dead ringers, but are you sure you know what they’re made of? I wrote a huge post on this earlier on, with some tips on how to protect yourself from fakes you don’t want in your life.
#4 Recognize quality.
Do you poke and prod the products you’re about to buy? It may not sound like the most elegant thing to do, but I’m really talking more about doing what it takes to recognize how well put together a product is. When I buy food, I scrutinize the ingredients intently, while I look through other items like toys, clothing and other merchandise with a fine tooth comb. Some people have accused me of being “OCD” (obsessive/compulsive/overly fussy) but this just means that I’m performing my role as a safe consumer pretty well. [For the record, I don’t mangle fruit. ;)]
#5 Buy local.
This may be a controversial point but it’s a consideration we should make that goes back to trusting the source of your goods. This is a personal choice and may not be a matter of black or white. There are some things you may prefer to get locally while others function spectacularly well as imports. My basic recommendation here is to see tip #1: go by reputation.
On Service: Who Are We Hiring?
#1 Use the Better Business Bureau.
Do you know who that is climbing your roof or installing your pipes? If you’ve gone through the yellow pages or spotted an ad somewhere, then unless the ad is from a recognizable company who has a long held reputation, then it may be prudent to dig a little deeper. Hit the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) from your own county and uncover the secrets behind all the service providers you’re about to sign up with.
#2 Check references and credentials.
From my experience, I can say that “you get what you pay for”. One of the toughest things I’ve experienced as a homeowner is to find really solid tradespeople. But once you’ve found them, you cherish your relationship with them since good service people just don’t grow on trees. Whether you’re shopping for a good medical provider, a good school or a good mechanic, just realize that reputation goes a long way, and if you haven’t heard much about somebody or something, then it’s time to ask for a bit more to back up their glowing stories of their own experience, wisdom and exceptional knowledge. Ask for and contact their references.
#3 Get recommendations from people you know.
You can extend this idea by finding, joining or even setting up a local community board for the very purpose of fielding referrals. I ask around for suggestions from people I know first, before hitting the yellow pages. There are also some online resources for service recommendations, but my experiences with some of them have been spotty.
#4 See samples of work and check a service provider’s online footprint.
Is this someone you can find online? Find out whether they’re signed up on community forums, boards and sites and see what others are saying about them. I’m surprised that many people just don’t perform background evaluations or don’t even attempt a simple “google check” on a particular outfit. Even quick online checks sometimes yield some amazing information! Here’s an example of something you may get out of a local board, where one community member warns of her own negative experience:
“We too got taken by this individual who was recommended by [this guy in cahoots with him] as being very good and trustworthy. He started a large job for us and after taking deposits and requesting more money for supplies which he returned we found out and also skipped out on us with the job 25% done. Our loss was about $50k not including all the time (6 months) of any excuse under the sun of why he couldn’t work. People, stay far away from these people and their recommendations. We have suffered so very much because of this!”
In this day and age, we end up functioning as our own private investigators just to get some good service.
#5 Recognize your limitations.
You may be tempted to perform DIY projects to cut costs or even perform as your own general contractor for bigger projects. Doing so can surely save you good money but when mistakes are made, they can be pretty costly. Unfortunately, this is one of those things you don’t realize you cannot do until you make the first harsh mistake. I can only envy those who have a knack for this sort of thing.
In summary, weigh your risks before making any choices. Take a moment to read, research and study where you’re committing your money to. Just because stuff is cheap doesn’t mean it rules.