The rise of the internet has been great for the consumer, helping to increase choice and drive down prices. Whether you're looking to buy motor insurance or music, you'll find it cheapest online, and for tips on how to save even more money there are hundreds of blogs, forums and information sites to guide you in the right direction. Here are 10 of the best:
Online shopping and web-based sales have revolutionised the way we hunt for bargain holidays. But although we are often rewarded for the time we invest in hunting down those bargains, it is easy to feel that we could be missing a trick, simply because there are so many travel and holiday websites out there.
Don't be put off by the simple design of Kayak. Set up by the people behind Travelocity and Expedia, it is a no-frills travel search engine that scans over 400 other websites for the most aggressive pricing, covering both direct suppliers (British Airways, etc) as well as agencies selling flight and holiday packages. If your destination is flexible, Kayak Buzz offers instant searches and an email alert facility for the cheapest deals to the 25 most popular destinations from the airports closest to your home. All enquiries are dealt with by real people rather than automated responses.
Buying and selling homes directly with another party is fairly uncommon – even Tesco has got in on the private-property estate agent act. But who wouldn't relish the opportunity to dump the agent, and potentially save 5-10 per cent of the property value? Sites offering just that have flourished in the last decade, though some are better than others.
Houseladder has one of the largest selections of UK property. It has a central listings database, and puts you in contact with the owners. There are also sales boards for your home, property guides and house-price statistics. The only problem is that, because it is being left to amateurs, you may not get photos. But stick with it – you could get some astonishing results.
This site has the potential to save you cash without changing the products that end up in your cupboards. As you fill your virtual trolley, the site's "Pricechecker" search kicks in, informing you of the same or comparable products sold cheaper elsewhere. The clever bit is that the site then transfers your trolley for you if you so chose.
Typical savings can be up to £20 on a standard shop, and £4 or £5 on individual items such as crates of beer. Its "Healthchecker" tool will help you manage your shopping trolley for low-fat diets or other dietary choices, by informing you of the calories you'd save with alternative products. It will even let you accumulate points on those ubiquitous loyalty cards.
Compared to the slick schmoozing of other money-saving websites, the irreverence of Quaffers Offers is a breath of fresh air, and it will save you cash on a decent bottle of vino – a win-win situation in my book. Edited by the wine writer Mel Jones, the site provides a straightforward search engine that allows you to choose supermarket, grape, country and price range, and then provides a direct link to detailed taste notes. Users can typically save around 30 per cent of the standard cost for plonks of preference.
Quaffers Offers also has discussion forums and articles by the editor, and will answer individual questions about wine. It all has the impression of being run from the kitchen table, and seems to be one of few remaining sites that really does offer great value for money.
A relaxed Antipodean vibe is stamped all over this site, which has evolved from its days as a bulletin board for Kiwis and Australians newly arrived in London to convert exchange rates and swoon at the cost of living. Now one of the best general sites for those with tight budgets in the major cities and towns worldwide (different cites have their own sites, all based on the same model), Gumtree still caters largely to students, working tourists and new graduates. But that doesn't mean there's nothing here for those with a little more disposable income.
The site's notice boards can be used to hunt for everything from "couch surfing" – sleeping on someone's sofa for a few pounds – to language swaps to ride shares to job postings to £5m plots of land for sale in Surrey. No section is more popular than "Freebies", in which people selling off their worldly goods to fund exotic travels or switch hemispheres offer to let you cart away their oversized televisions for nothing – as long as you pick the stuff up yourself.
Meanwhile, if you like a bit of human chat along with your online bargain-hunting, Gumtree's curious extension into creative writing, thank yous, confessions, and a section dubiously named "Last Night" could be right up your street.
When it comes to online auctions, eBay is the name on everyone's lips. But the behemoth seems to be becoming a victim of its own success. eBay has become so mainstream that real bargains, as sold by private individuals, are increasingly being washed out by large companies. If you really want to grab a good second-hand bargain, it might pay to switch to a lesser-known auction site.
To bag a shopping bargain, Give or Take is an antidote to all those cheesy cash-back offers on other sites, which only ever make you wonder whether you're being conned. It allows you to search for discounted high-street goods, and gives you the choice of either pocketing the savings – as much as 30 per cent of the value of your purchases – or donating this money to charity. There is an annual fee of £5, waived if you take the charity option.
To search for the best and cheapest music download sites is to enter a quagmire of technology compatibility and download speeds. The market has been flooded with sites offering cheap or free MP3 downloads. But beware of the illegal implications of file sharing, not to mention the potentially compromised quality of the digital files you download.
Here, you need to do your research if you plan to stray from the household name suppliers. Paying a few pence for half a track does not make more financial sense than forking out twice that for a full file.
MP3 Rocket is a US-based site that offers free downloads for a single lifetime payment of $34.95, with no costs per download or for software. With the current exchange rate, that's a great deal – it works out at around £17.50.
For an additional $15 (£7.50), you can access the full archive of over 12 million MP3 files, including movies. The site allows you to burn your MP3 files to CD for free, and it's all remarkably easy to set up and navigate.
Forget the ambulance-chasing online compensation services that ooze nothing but schadenfreude – the Citizens Advice Bureau is a real force to be reckoned with when it comes to complaints, concerns and compensation. By relying on some 20,000 trained volunteers, the charity is able to offer free and independent advice on legal issues, money disputes and other problems; it handles over 5 million cases a year. Its online service is invaluable: practical, up-to-date information on a wide range of topics – benefits, housing, employment rights, discrimination, debt, tax and more – in a variety of languages.
The site is easy to navigate; there are fact sheets and guides available to download and print, and links to other reputable organisations for additional information. It may not instantly put money in your pocket, but it could help you retrieve cash you may be owed, at no cost to yourself.
Love him or loathe him, Martin Lewis has created one of the most thorough money-saving sites around. It offers your standard, run-of-the-mill comparison services to help you find the cheapest deals on car finance or shoes, and it has fact sheets and guides for a vast number of subjects. But it really stands out from the other comparison sites in the quantity and range of news, opinion, and new cash-generating ideas that are posted every day.
The forums have a huge following, and it is easy to see why. Lewis constantly comes up with innovative, workable money-making and money-saving tips – right down to free templates for correspondence. The myth that you need to spend money to make money is, on a domestic level, blown out of the water on these pages.
Don't be fooled into thinking that The Independent's website is merely another news source. The recently revamped site also offers readers a number of ways to spend and save. Through its extensive range of partnerships, the site lets users compare mortgages, savings and other financial products, as well as offering ways to buy concert tickets, music downloads, books and cheap holidays.