By Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter Published Dec 03, 2012 at 1:03 PM

For many households, Christmas time can create a budget nightmare. Gifts, parties and traveling are a serious drain on finances, and December means that most people have to trim their expenditures along with their trees.  

In a dismal economy, money-saving sites like Groupon and Living Social can seem like a lifesaver – especially around the holidays, when finding space for entertainment and dining can seem increasingly difficult.

But experts warn that there can be too much of a good thing.

"The popularity of daily deal sites like Living Social and Groupon has yielded huge benefits. Consumers receive massive savings on everything from dining out to teeth whitening – yet with the positive comes the negative," says money-saving expert and consumer analyst Andrea Woroch, who tells that what she calls the "troubling trend" of daily deal addiction is on the rise.

Consumer finance advocate and author of "Bounce Back From Bankruptcy" Paula Ryan agrees.

"It’s not only the ease and privacy of online shopping, but it’s the added prestige of limited numbers of items offered and deadlines to take advantage of the offers," she says. "It’s extremely similar to what we saw with people when QVC and Home Shopping Network came into being."

We all know someone who has bought an online deal that ended up costing them more than it was supposedly valued at – or more likely, we have done so ourselves. Especially in the case of restaurants, after factoring in gas, parking and a tip, it’s hard to actually save money, in the end.

The fact is, there are definitely savings to be found in the daily deals. But in order to take advantage of them, the consumer needs to be discerning, restrained and smart. Here are some tips from the experts on how to get the most bang for your daily deal buck.

Make a budget

"Every time I use a certificate, I spend way more than the required minimum," says Whitefish Bay resident and local real estate agent Mary Ritter Zaharias. Her niece, Kathleen Kirchner of Menomonee Falls, agrees.

"I’ve been known to spend a little more than the requisite $14 at La Chimenea when I have a Groupon," she said. "You tend to get lulled into ‘Oh! I have a coupon! I’ll have another drink!’"

Don’t be passive about your spending, says Woroch.

"Daily deal purchases should be treated like any other expense and incorporated into your monthly budget," she says. "Consider the activities on which you spend the majority of your discretionary income, and search for deals accordingly." She also recommends splitting the cost with friends to increase your savings.

Be sure that you are actually saving money instead of spending more than you would because you were dazzled by the deal.

"You want to make sure you’re not overspending," says Ryan. "If you’ve got $100 a month in your dining-out budget, you can stretch that to $200 or more, if you use Groupons – but make sure you stay within the $100 you set for yourself."

Have an exit strategy

Sites like Groupon stipulate in their rules that the amount paid for the deal will never expire and consumers can still recoup goods and services from vendors to cover what they’ve already paid. But Woroch suggests sites like CoupRecoup to get rid of unwanted bargains. Don’t forget to ask around – maybe a friend would be willing to buy you out.  

Only peruse the deals you know you will use

"If I can buy $20 worth of Indian food at Taste of India for $10, which is a restaurant I love to frequent but cut back on because I’m being mindful of my spending, then I’m going to take advantage of their Groupon special," said Ryan. But the only real way to save is if you restrict yourself to buying deals for businesses you already patronize. It’s easy to see a yoga deal and imagine yourself diving into a whole new fitness routine – but chances are, you’ll only get your money’s worth if you already loved yoga.

Do your homework

"I bought a Groupon for a massage in July and couldn’t get an appointment because they were completely booked for a year and a half in advance," says Sasha Leykin of Milwaukee. "So my Groupon would expire before I could use it. It took me two months to get a refund, and all they could give me was a Groupon credit. I haven’t been able to find anything to spend the credits on."

Before you buy, scope out the place of business and be sure that you will be able to redeem your coupon in a timely fashion. Furthermore, be sure that the coupon is actually worth what the website claims it is.

"When it comes to ‘goods,’ be sure to check the usual purchase price of the items and figure in shipping," says Tricia Meyer of Sunshine Rewards, a website that compiles different daily deals to afford users cash-back rebates. "For example, a wine bottle holder was advertised as a daily deal at a price higher than what you could buy it on Amazon. Do not go only on what they say the ‘retail price’ is. Check it out through other retailers."

And don’t let the prospect of big savings cloud your judgment. "Always read consumer reviews for spa and restaurants to ensure you are purchasing a certificate for an establishment that offers the service and product you expect," says Woroch.

Resist temptation

Once you sign up for a site, you get inundated every day with emails about new deals. This can be dangerous, says Woroch, especially for the shopaholics out there who are easily tempted.

"Sign up for just one of your favorite sites and ignore the rest – check out, a site that aggregates all the daily dales into one website for easy browsing," she says. "You also might want to create a separate email address so you can discern deals from spiels." 

Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter

Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.