Daily deal sites such as Groupon and Living Social, and flash sale fashion sites like Gilt Groupe and Rue La La, surged in popularity. Recession-scarred shoppers turned hunting for low prices into a part-time job, whiling away precious hours to find the best deals.
Meanwhile, consumer spending spiked and dipped in response to the economic news of the day. As a result, people fell into a pattern of short-term buying at the expense of long-term budgeting.
Savings guru Jean Chatzky, director of education and editor-in-chief of SavvyMoney.com, and its CEO, JB Orecchia, weigh in on the major spending trends and pitfalls of 2011, and how to keep them at bay in 2012.
2011 Trap: Daily Deal and Flash Sale Addiction
Flash sale and daily deal sites "really took hold" this year, Chatzky says.
By offering a limited amount of merchandise for a limited time, these sites were like catnip for impulse buyers. "Psychologically, they really have consumers where they want them," she says.
They create a sense of urgency via ploys such as displaying a clock ticking down the seconds until a given sale ends. Their goal: to make you feel that the deal "is going to go away -- and you've got to take advantage of it," Chatzky says. "The danger is that [people] overspend."
• 2012 Takeaway: These websites spark impulse -- rather than needs-based -- purchases, Chatzky says. In turn, "Don't take advantage of every deal for the sake of the deal."
Orecchia says that first, shoppers need to assess what they really need, be it a new coat or a pair of shoes, and set up their own process of discipline.
That could mean avoiding daily email blasts from these sites and setting up your account to receive offers on a less frequent basis, suggests Chatzky, or unsubscribing from the sites altogether until you need to make a purchase.
2011 Trap: The Exhaustive Hunt for the Sale
In the years since we tumbled into the Great Recession, "we've learned how to be smarter shoppers," Chatzky says.
But the relentless hunt for the deal can become its own trap. "We know a good deal when we see it, but [can] take too much time to get that extra little bit off."
• 2012 Takeaway: Remember that time is money, Chatzky says. "You know how much approximately your time is worth per hour. If you're not saving more than that [in the pursuit of a deal], then it's not worth doing."
This especially holds true online. "The Internet can be a time suck," she says. So, take a only few minutes -- not an hour -- to search for a coupon code, for example. If you can't find one, move on. "That's time you could be working, or doing something you actually like doing," she says.
Also, factor in the cost of getting to a deal. If you're driving to four grocery stores to take advantage of different sales at each, or traveling 45 minutes to a discount outlet, think about this: A store's better prices aren't worth it if you're spending more on gas to get there than you save on the purchases you make.
2011 Trap: The Mood of the Day Prevailed
Consumers were living and spending in the present tense this year, Chatzky says. Purchasing spiked with good financial news, and contracted when the headlines were dour.
"When the [stock] market was having a good day, and we felt flush, we were happy to spend," she says. "Conversely, after the debt ceiling debacle, everybody pulled way back, and we were talking about a double-dip recession, and really, nothing in the underlying economy fundamentally changed."
What has changed, notes Orecchia, is that financial news is now in the mainstream media, and we're getting it 24/7 online, in newspapers, on TV and radio. This meant that even spending among people "who weren't flush with investments" also tended to ebb and flow with the economic news, he says.
• 2012 Takeaway: "Keep an eye on your long-term financial goals and don't be swayed too much by negative or positive news," Chatzky says.
Instead, stay focused on what you want in three years, be it a new house, money to pay for your children's college tuition or enough to retire, "and how much you'll need to get there."
2011 Trap: Big Bank Fees
Excessive bank fees -- and the public outcry over them -- were among the big stories of 2011. When Bank of America threatened to charge consumers a new fee to use their debit cards for charges -- and other banks planned to follow suit -- consumers fought back. One result was that "we saw massive defections of people to credit unions," Chatzky notes.
In turn, many banks retracted their trial tests of some higher fees.
• 2012 Takeaway: Consumers should be vigilant about monitoring their credit card and bank fees, and be proactive in dealing with issuers to keep interest rates and incremental fees as low as possible. "Call your credit card issuers and see if there's an opportunity to get a better rate," Orecchia says. "You should scrutinize all areas where you're charged, and challenge where you can get a better deal" -- from credit cards to cable bills.
"Understand that it's a competitive landscape," Orecchia says. "Ask [companies] for the best deal that you qualify for, or [tell them] you're going to move your business somewhere else."
There's some positive news on that front: As banks looked for ways to increase revenues, they stepped up their credit loyalty programs, such as as free airline miles or cash-back rewards based on spending. But, while those rewards programs offer you an opportunity to maximize your savings if they fit your spending patterns, "don't fall into the trap of spending just to get the free benefit," Orecchia warns.
2011 Trap: A Savings Shortfall
While there's been chatter about the nation's savings rate rising in a recessionary climate, Americans continue to under save, Chatzky says. Savings "popped during [the height of the recession] to 5%, according to government data, but we're not saving enough, and we haven't been saving enough."
• 2012 Takeaway: Don't shop until after you save, Chatzky says. "You want to save at least 10% of whatever you're earning for your long and short-term goals."