Even in good times, consumer electronics can seem painfully pricey. Now, as we all try to scrimp and save, they can feel even more out of reach.
But there are cheaper options for those willing to do a bit of research and exercise some flexibility.
Refurbished goods, so-called "deal of the day" Web sites and online auctions are just a few alternatives for the budget-conscious consumer.
Just be wary of deals that look too good to be true and check out the return policy and warranty before you make a purchase.
1. Give second-hand a chance.
Not only are refurbished electronics easier on your wallet, they also keep electronic waste out of landfills.
Refurbished goods run the gamut from TVs, digital cameras, laptops and phones that have been returned to the retailer or manufacturer and then restored to look and work like new. Sometimes the products have been returned without having been opened.
Once the manufacturers receive a used product, they test it, clear the data off of it and then return the item to the original specifications.
Big Box Stores and Manufacturers Offer Refurbished Electronics
The big box stores, such as Best Buy and Target, sell refurbished products at bargain prices. As do manufacturers, such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony Epson and others.
At Apple's Special Deals section, for example, the MacBook Air, which starts at $1799 for a brand-new laptop, can be had for $999 and up.
Best Buy also sells refurbished goods. For example, used iPhone 3Gs are on sale for $50 less than the price of new ones ($99 for the 8GB version and $149 for the 16GB version).
On its Web site, Best Buy said that prices on refurbished items are, on average, 15 percent to 20 percent lower than brand new products. But they still come with the manufacturer's 90-day limited hardware warranty.
E-commerce king Amazon.com also sells a range of refurbished electronics on both its flaghip site and its sister site WarehouseDeals.com.
Stick With Vendors With Vested Interests in Protecting Their Brands
"When you're buying refurbished stuff, we think it's safest to do it from the manufacturer or sites like Warehousedeals.com," said Paul Reynolds, the electronics editor for Consumer Reports.
Amazon-related sites are recommended, he said, as they have long histories running reliable e-commerce operations.
Overall, a good rule of thumb, experts say, is sticking with retailers and manufacturers that have a vested interested in protecting their reputation.
2. Watch for discounts of the day.
Woot.com was one of the first in 2004. But now a whole crop of Web sites feature a new deal every single day. Similar sites aggregate daily deals so that online shoppers can browse several bargains in one place.
The products are discounted for a variety of reasons. Some are manufacturer surpluses or closeouts, others are refurbished or part of a promotional or marketing push.
Consumer Reports' Reynolds emphasizes that these sites aren't made for everyone.
'Deal of the Day' Sites Best for Those Who Can Be Flexible
"They're best suited for people who are not looking for something specific," he said.
Those who aren't too fussy about models and brands will be most satisfied with these sites, as will those "who insanely love deals," he added.
The range of available items is very wide, encompassing all kinds of gadgets and accessories.
On Woot.com, for example, a digital nutrition scale (that weighs and calculates the calories, fat, etc. in a given portion of food) could be discounted to $19.99 from nearly $50 for 24 hours.
Amazon.com and Buy.com also offer deals of the day. Other bargain sites include TechBargains.com, ZeroDayDeals.com and DODTracker.com.
Yung Trang, vice president for TechBargains, said his team works with a range of manufacturers and retailers to find and bring great deals to its customers.
Recently, he said his team found a stock of PlayStation 3 gaming consoles on sale at Home Depot for $60 off. A couple of weeks ago, when Disney's "Earth" was released in conjunction with Earth Day, TechBargains.com worked with the Discovery Channel to offer its customers the Planet Earth Blu-Ray DVD set for $29.99 instead of the $99.99 list price.
Make Money on the Tech You Already Have
"We're a highlighting service," Trang said about his 10-year-old company. "What we're known for is featuring the lowest price out there at the right time."
Consumer Reports advises that as consumers use sites like TechBargains they read the reviews and comments of other users to get a feel for the site and cautions that return and refund policies can be limited.
3. Turn a profit on your current technology.
YouRenew.com is an option for those who desperately want the newest toy but feel guilty upgrading when an older model still works perfectly well.
Launched just six weeks ago, the site makes it easy and potentially profitable to recycle electronics.
"The goal of the site is to inspire reuse in general," said president and co-founder Rich Littlehale, a 22-year-old Yale University senior who took a year off from school to work on the site.
After users search for their devices, they fill out a brief survey about the products' condition (i.e. "Does this device turn on?," "Is there water damage?"). Then the Web site calculates the value of the product.
Recycle or Sell Old Gadgets
If the device is beyond economic repair, YouRenew makes it easy for the owner to mail it in to be recycled.
If the device is in working condition, it tells the user how much they'll pay for the device and walks them through the process of mailing it in (for example, it helps download a free shipping label).
A more recent Blackberry Curve could pull $105. A Motorola Razr could fetch between $14 and $61 (depending on the age, condition and model).
While other Web sites let users sell devices for cash, Littlehale said he wants his site to be the "green option" and donates a portion of each transaction to two environmental non-profit partners, CarbonFund.org and AmericanForests.org.
"Why wouldn't you get $100 for an old BlackBerry and put it towards a new iPhone," he asked. "It's a solution we know people are using us for."
Of course, eBay is also an option for those familiar with the world of online auctions.
'Open-Box' Electronics Also Sold at Bargain Prices
4. Consider "open-box" options.
Similar to refurbished items, "open-box" electronics are those that have been returned by customers and then re-sold at discounted prices.
Consumer Reports recommends them, but not without limitation.
Unlike refurbished items, they are not returned to the manufacturer and restored in a factory-authorized facility. The most a retailer will do is quickly make sure it works and then clear the memory so that a previous user's information is erased.
Consumers can find open box items in-store and online at JR.com, TigerDirect.com, Amazon.com and WarehouseDeals.com.
By one estimate, Consumer Reports says only 5 percent of retail returns are actually defective, so the chances of getting a reliable open-box product are quite high.
Pay Attention to Warranty and Return Policies
But the publication's electronics editor, Reynolds, cautions that the products are checked quickly and sometimes have minor bumps scratches and other cosmetic blemishes.
As with purchasing refurbished items, it's important to note whether it comes with a warranty or return option.
5. Be informed.
Most of all, consumer advocates warn that it's important to do your homework.
For starters, don't fall for prices that are too low. If the discounts are more than 50 percent, Consumer Reports warns that the items could be counterfeit (unless they're coming straight from the manufacturer).
If you're selling an item, check out other Web sites to get a sense of your product's value to prevent being taken for a ride.
And, keep in mind that buying a refurbished or open-box item is most worth it if the savings are substantial (about 20 percent), so know the marketplace before you hand over your credit card number.
"You need to be highly informed about what the going market is for the things you're bidding on or buying and don't automatically assume you're going to get a deal," Reynolds said.