Aug. 13 2014 12:00 AM

Maximizing the utility of online vouchers

This summer a friend and I savored a gourmet meal at a local country club. It included an appetizer, two glasses of wine and two enormous entrees. Total cost: $29. No, we didn’t know the waiter and there was no scam involved. We enjoyed this upscale experience thanks to online vouchers, which make it is easy to save big bucks on Lansing meals, massages, golf and goods.

“Deal of the day” sites, including Groupon and Living Social, offer savings for cost-conscious consumers. The premise is simple: A business offers a voucher toward a good or service for a set price. The consumer buys the voucher online, presents it to the merchant and enjoys a good bargain.

While some vouchers are limited in number or have a short deadline for purchasing, many are available for longer. One local barbecue joint has had a Groupon deal available all summer. Longer deadlines alleviate the pressure to click the “ Buy” button, allowing customers to research reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon and Yelp.

Research is key to ensuring that the offer is a good fit for you. As my coupon-cutting mom used to say, a half-price bag of manure is a bargain if you have a field to fertilize. If not, all you have is a cheap bag of turds.

I have used dozens of discount vouchers over the past three years and can attest for the value. I’ve made out like a bandit, but have also made my share of bad buys. Here are some basic tips:

Be adventurous.
One of the main goals of the merchant is to attract new customers, while the attraction for customers is to try something new. Vouchers allow you to try new foods, experiences (tandem parachuting, anyone?) and services.

Choose wisely.
Yes, be adventurous, but within reason. You have to be realistic about what you will or won’t eat or do. If you´re on a low-fat diet, you´re probably not going to use a voucher for a joint that specializes in deep-fried gizzards.

Do your research.
Read the details about the business, and if it really feels outside of your comfort zone, skip it. That introductory pole-dancing fitness class sounded like a lark when I hit “Buy,” but modesty and reality set in and I never called to schedule a class. The only workout I got was from kickfrom page 24 ing myself. Although I can still redeem it for the price I paid, years later the well-worn voucher is buried deeply in my purse.

Don’t stock up.
Most vouchers for local businesses expire in 30 to 120 days. Don´t buy more meals than you can eat in that period and don´t save them up for a rainy day. More than once I´ve been out of town and realized that I have a voucher that is due to expire while I’m gone, then frantically emailed friends trying to find someone who will use it so that the bargain is not wasted. Oddly enough, not everyone can drop what they’re doing to go play putt-putt golf for free.

Print it.
While many vouchers can be redeemed through smart phone apps, it may be more effective to print them, highlight the expiration date and put them in order of nearest to farthest expiration date. On date night, it’s easier to make a decision about where to eat or what to do if there’s a voucher nearing its expiration date.

Don´t be stingy.
Groupon reminds clients of this often, but it bears repeating: If a voucher involves a service where tipping is expected, tip on the total bill, not the discounted amount. The server or service person is not getting a cut of the voucher, but is still providing complete service.

Shop around.
Voucher sites tend to orient their offers around cities, but there is some crossover. Groupon has the toehold on Lansing, but check Living Social’s Flint, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids pages — you can often find deals for businesses in the Lansing area, especially if the business is part of a chain or franchise.

Sealing the deal.
Finally, remember that even when a voucher expires, you still get to use the expired voucher at that business for what you paid. You don’t lose money unless you never use the voucher. Who knows? Maybe someday I will get that pole-dancing lesson after all.