Do your homework before making high-tech purchase

When it comes to shopping for a new gadget, it’s easy to buy trouble.

Within the next 12 months many of you will buy some new high-tech gadget. The pitfalls you face have little to do with technology and a lot to do with common sense and shopping skills.

Your shopping adventure takes you through a maze of hands — all of them reaching for your wallet. Going into this adventure unprepared is very much like taking a high-speed drive with your seat belt unbuckled.

So give me a few moments to help you buckle in and prepare for that shopping trip.

Fast lane to disaster

Take a lesson from a good housepainter. An expert painter will spend more time preparing than painting. The time spent getting the surface ready makes the actual job of painting go much faster and also results in a better job. It’s the same with shopping for consumer electronics. The time you spend researching products and prices makes it more likely that you’ll get the right product at the right price. So keep your wallet in your pocket for a spell while we do our preparation.

Know what you need

I don’t worry too much about whether you’ll do your research. I talk by email to enough readers to know that most of you are smart enough to read the reviews. Let me tell you where many trip up — identifying the features you really need. Spend some time thinking about why you are replacing the old product. What do you need that it doesn’t provide? Maybe it’s a need for more speed with a computer, or weight and size with a laptop. Identifying what is important to you will help you narrow your search and ask the right questions. Buying a product is often a compromise between price and features. By knowing what you need, you’ll make a better compromise.

Running the maze

You and the merchants have different goals. Your goal is to buy a good product at a good price. The merchant’s goal is to make a sale at a profit. Don’t blame the merchants. They are doing just what they are supposed to do — trying to make money. It’s your job to avoid the many ways that even the best stores will try to increase the final bill. Let’s talk about some of these ways.

Extended warranties

It sounds so smart. With an extended warranty you don’t have to worry about a thing, they’ll tell you. If your new gadget takes a dirt nap, you are covered. But in almost every case, an extended warranty is a foolish waste of money. For starters, most reputable products come with a one-year guarantee at no cost to you. High-tech devices tend to fail quickly if they are defective and that one-year period is long enough to cover that danger period. Also keep in mind that some credit cards offer their own protection when you use them to make a purchase. Be careful of the hard sell for an extended warranty. Sales people — even those who don’t work on commission — often get extra money if they can sell you an extended warranty. So they’re strongly motivated to make their best pitch. My advice: Don’t do it.

Adding to your troubles

Add-ons are another way that merchants boost your final bill. If you are buying an HDTV, it is a good time to try to sell you a new sound system, or cables. With a computer, it can be extra software, or a bigger monitor. After all, you are already spending a lot of money and you want things to be just right. But be careful. It’s easy to spend 50 percent more than the cost of your new device on accessories.

Postponing the pain

The great thing about credit cards is that you can spend a lot of money that you don’t have. That’s also the terrible thing about credit cards. I realize that — with a high-dollar purchase — you may be forced to use one. But don’t let all that buying power go to your head. A seemingly endless stream of monthly payments can take the joy out of the coolest device. If you don’t have enough money to immediately pay off at least half the device’s cost, then seriously consider postponing the purchase until you can do that.

Be ready to walk

If, after following all my tips, you just can’t find the right device for the right amount of money, please don’t feel as if you have to buy at that instant. Prices tend to drop. So leave your wallet in your pocket and wait a few weeks. Spend that time monitoring prices until you find the right deal.

I love getting new gadgets. But sacrificing your peace of mind with too much debt isn’t a smart trade. Shop wisely and you’ll eventually get what you want without the extra baggage of financial worry.