Your refrigerator might be on its last legs.
Or maybe you just want to turn in that '70s-era relic for a 21st century model. In either case, how can you find a good refrigerator that won't send a chill through your bank account?
We've zeroed in on what you need to know when buying a fridge, and how to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Assess Your Needs
Before embarking on your refrigerator shopping, get out the measuring tape. It might seem obvious, but sizing up the space in your kitchen where your fridge will live is a crucial first step.
This way "you can eliminate considering models that are too big or too small," Christine Frietchen, editor in chief of ConsumerSearch.com, a review aggregator that compares product ratings from experts and user reviews, tells DailyFinance.
"Especially measure depth and door clearance," she says. "It's too easy to buy a too-large unit, thinking that they're all the same standard size -- they aren't," Frietchen says.
Design and Price
Refrigerators range in cost from about $500 to several thousand dollars, and should last for about a decade, Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports, tells DailyFinance. (Since this is the Savings Experiment, we're going to assume that you're not interested in hearing about models from luxury makers like Sub-Zero and Northland, which exceed the $10,000 mark.)
Prices are determined, in general, by design.
Top-mounted refrigerators, where the freezer sits at the top, tend to be the least-expensive models, ranging from about $500 to $1,400.
These models have lost some popularity to refrigerators that place the freezers on the bottom, Kuperszmid Lehrman says.
Bottom-mounted refrigerators have become a favorite among consumers, because most food is stored at eye level, so there is little need to bend down to reach for those leftovers, for example. They can range from about $900 to $1,600, Kuperszmid Lehrman says.
Side-by-side refrigerators are built so that the freezer is on the left, and the refrigerated compartment is on the right. The cost can range from about $800 to $2,700.
And French door refrigerators, the crème de la crème, have become "exceptionally popular because they have two doors and don't take up as much as much space when they're opened up."
However, you'll pay a pretty penny for these models: They range from about $1,400 to $2,800.
Save By Knowing Value of Fridge Features
You'd be wise to forgo a few fridge features and save some cash -- stainless steel, for example.
"Yes, this is a fashionable finish, but it will cost you [about] $200 extra," Frietchen says.
What's more, "a stainless steel finish is a magnet for fingerprints, [whereas] a black or white finish will hide fingerprints much better and costs less."
Don't spend money on a model with digital temperature controls, which will jack up the price of the fridge, Kuperszmid Lehrman says.
Some suppliers these days are touting features that purport to keep food fresher longer, such as air purifiers designed to eliminate bacteria and reduce food spoilage. Don't take the bait. By definition, refrigerators are designed to keep a consistent temperature, and how you store your food will largely prevent it from spoiling too soon, she says.
A filtered icemaker is another overrated feature. "Unless your tap water tastes really bad, you probably don't need this feature," which requires shelling out money for replacement filters, Frietchen says.
And you can skip the cost-additive "rapid ice" feature.
Conversely, there are some features you might not want to do without and will cost you little -- or nothing -- extra.
Refrigerators with split shelves, which allow you to arrange the space in your fridge precisely to your liking, are a helpful feature, Kuperszmid Lehrman says.
Other helpful features include gallon-size door storage, "handy for big bottles of soda, bottled water and jugs of juice," as well as a freezer light, Frietchen says.
The Energy-Efficiency Factor
You can reap long-term savings from your refrigerator by picking an energy-efficient model that will reduce your utility bill year-round.
Energy Star is a joint government program from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy that's designed to help Americans save money and protect the environment via energy efficient products and practices. Energy Star-qualified refrigerators are required to use at least 20% less energy than models that don't bear the Energy Star label, according to Energystar.gov.
Replacing an old fridge can save you money, the government site says. Use the Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator to estimate how much your fridge costs to operate energy-wise, and how much you could save with an Energy Star product.
For example, if you're holding onto a fridge from the 1980s, replacing it with an Energy Star model can save you over $100 a year on your utility bills, the site says.
But it's not enough to just look for an Energy Star approved model: You want to see how many kilowatt hours it uses, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. This is how much it costs to run, on average, in a year.
Refrigerators come with an EnergyGuide label that tells you in kilowatt-hours (kWh) how much electricity a specific model uses in a year. The smaller the number, the less energy the refrigerator uses, and the less it will cost you to operate, according to the Consumer Energy Center.
"In our tests, we found differences of $80 or more a year in electricity costs for refrigerators that are the same size," Kuperszmid Lehrman says.
What's more, there are state, local and federal incentives to use eco-friendly products, such as product rebates for chucking an energy-guzzling fridge, for example, she says. Check with your local utility to see if it offers any appliance rebates.
You can also check The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, which lists rebates nationwide, across a variety of consumer products.
Recommended Value-Oriented Models
Experts weighed in on a handful of refrigerators that make the quality and value cut.
- For around $800, the Frigidaire Gallery FGUI2149L[P], with a top freezer, is energy efficient, has consistent temperature performance and "fits in a 30-inch space" -- although it's a tad noisy, Kuperszmid Lehrman says.
- The Amana ABB2221WE[W], with a bottom freezer, is energy efficient and quiet, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. And for about $900 to $950, the price is right, too.
- ConsumerSearch.com gave high marks to the Kenmore 5942 side-by-side refrigerator, for about $800, at Sears, for its energy efficiency. "It's inexpensive, Energy Star-rated, and includes the popular through-the-door ice and water dispenser," Frietchen says.
- If you want the posh look of stainless steel as well as the convenience of a French door -- two pricey features, you likely won't find a better buy than the Samsung RF266AEWP, for about $1,500, Frietchen says.
Tap Sales, Rebates, Haggle
When it comes to refrigerators, make sure to comparison shop.
While the national chains, such as Home Depot (HD) , Lowe's (LOW) , Best Buy (BBY) and Sears (SHLD) are major sellers of major appliances, including refrigerators, make sure to compare their prices to those offered by the little guys. That's because smaller retailers and local appliance stores "may be more likely to give you a discount, and it never hurts to ask," Frietchen says.
And don't be afraid to flex your haggling muscles. Consumer Reports found that shoppers who haggled down the price when buying a major appliance saved $97 on average, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. So when you're in the store, always ask the salesperson, "Is this the best price? Can you do any better?"
If they won't budge on the price, ask for things like free delivery, installation or hauling away your old fridge for free, she says.
While waiting for a sale is a no-brainer for any large product, for steep discounts, "pay special attention to holiday sales," such as Memorial Day, Labor Day and around the holidays in particular," Frietchen says.
Keep an eye out for financing deals to ease the burden of shelling out for a big-ticket purchase all at once. These plans "let you pay over time, interest free, for a certain period of time -- often a year," she says.
And don't forget to ask the salesperson which models offer rebates, Frietchen says. Otherwise, you're just leaving money on the table.