SMART BUYING


Get the Best, Spend Less

Buy the gold standard -- the very best that money can buy. Or, satisfy your "champagne taste" with these value-priced alternatives. Compare your options in our slide shows organized by category (or read the text version below):

The Best vs. The Bargains: Investments

The Best vs. The Bargains: Cars

The Best vs. The Bargains: Food and Wine

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The Best vs. The Bargains: Real Estate and Home Improvement

The Best vs. The Bargains: Fashion

The Best vs. The Bargains: Financial Services

The Best vs. The Bargains: Travel

The Best vs. The Bargains: Technology


Investments

GROWTH STOCKS
The contenders may have more room to grow

GOLD: Amazon.com (symbol AMZN). At $120, the king of online merchants trades for a rich 41 times estimated 2010 earnings.

VALUE: eBay (EBAY). At $22, the electronic flea-market proprietor sells for just 13 times 2010 earnings.

TRADE-OFF: eBay hasn't matched Amazon's explosive growth.


GOLD: Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B). True, you can now buy the recently split Class B shares for $77. And at 1.3 times book value, Berkshire is well priced, though not a super bargain.

VALUE: Alleghany (Y). Considered a mini Berkshire, this holding company has heavy exposure to the insurance industry and, at $263, trades for 0.9 times book value.

TRADE-OFF: No Warren Buffett.


GOLD: Google (GOOG). At $533, one share of the search giant costs as much as a new computer.

VALUE: Yahoo (YHOO). At $15, one share of the Internet-search industry's runner-up costs less than a decent bottle of wine.

TRADE-OFF: Yahoo has struggled to stem the bleeding of its market share to Google.


GOLD: Apple (AAPL). You'll pay $200 per share, or 17 times estimated fiscal 2010 earnings, to invest in the purveyor of iPhones, iPods and iPads.

VALUE: Research In Motion (RIMM). Shares of the BlackBerry maker go for $71, or 14 times estimated fiscal 2011 earnings.

TRADE-OFF: Research In Motion has no history of groundbreaking innovation.


MUTUAL FUNDS
Better performance often comes down to fees

GOLD: Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX). The first index fund for the mass market, 500 has an admirable history of matching the record of Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. No more, no less.

VALUE: iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV). Sorry, Vanguard, but the iShares exchange-traded fund is even cheaper than your flagship, charging just 0.09% in annual expenses compared with the Vanguard fund's 0.16% expense ratio.

TRADE-OFF: Without an online account with Fidelity, you pay commissions when you trade the ETF.


GOLD: Pimco Total Return A (PTTAX). To invest in the Class A shares of Total Return, run by star bond picker Bill Gross, you pay a 3.75% sales charge and 0.90% in annual fees.

VALUE: Harbor Bond Institutional (HABDX). Same Bill Gross, lower fees. You'll pay no load and just 0.57% a year.

TRADE-OFF: Hard to see any.


GOLD: Royce Value (RYVFX). Royce is a shop that specializes in the stocks of small, undervalued companies, and lead manager Whitney George has produced an outstanding record.

VALUE: Royce Focus Trust (FUND). It isn't a perfect clone, but you get George's investment expertise at this closed-end fund. At a mid-February price of about $6, it traded at a 13% discount to the value of its underlying assets.

TRADE-OFF: Closed-end funds are complex, and discounts to asset value can get larger.


INFLATION HEDGE
Commodities are a must-have for your portfolio

GOLD: Gold (naturally). The yellow metal serves as an insurance policy against a drop in the dollar, as well as against political and economic uncertainty. To invest, buy an exchange-traded fund such as SPDR Gold Shares (GLD).

VALUE: Palladium. Like platinum, this metal is used in catalytic converters. To invest, buy ETFS Physical Palladium Shares (PALL).

TRADE-OFF: Palladium is cheaper than gold on a per-ounce basis but more volatile. For broader exposure to commodities, we like PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking (DBC), an ETF.


DISCOUNT BROKERS
Lesser-known firms offer cut-rate commissions

GOLD: Fidelity and Charles Schwab strike a good balance between price and service. Both give customers scads of investment options and research tools. And both recently cut commissions.

VALUE: Just2Trade charges $2.50 per online trade, SogoTrade charges $3 and TradeKing, $4.95. Zecco, which charges $4.50, allows ten free online transactions if you trade at least 25 times per month or have an account balance of $25,000 or more.

TRADE-OFF: You sacrifice the depth of research and range of investment options at Fidelity and Schwab.


Cars

BUYING NEW
You pay a premium for the name and for buying new

GOLD: Mercedes-Benz E550 ($57,175). It has Benz's classic looks plus sharper handling and decent gas mileage.

VALUE: Hyundai Genesis 4.6 ($40,300). A smaller engine gives slightly better fuel economy than the E-class, and it has standard navigation and a better warranty.

TRADE-OFF: With the Hyundai, you give up the cachet of Euro luxe and such innovative extras as Attention Assist, which monitors drivers for drowsiness.


GOLD: Lexus RX 350 ($38,500). The redesigned RX boasts a new suspension that improves handling and expands cargo space.

VALUE: Ford Edge SEL ($31,195). It has more headroom and rear legroom than the Lexus and five years of roadside assistance (versus four years for the RX).

TRADE-OFF: The Ford has a shorter warranty and resale value is 43% after three years, versus 58% for the Lexus.


GOLD: Audi A6 3.0 Quattro ($51,025). Smooth lines and classy interiors are Audi's signature, but the A6 goes further with high-tech safety features such as blind-spot monitoring.

VALUE: Volkswagen CC VR6 4Motion ($41,220). The A6's corporate cousin also offers German driving dynamics, with more rear legroom and a five-year drivetrain warranty (one year longer than for Audis).

TRADE-OFF: The VW seats only four, has less cargo space than the Audi, and is more fuel-thirsty.


NEW VERSUS USED CARS
GOLD: 2010 BMW 328i ($34,025).

VALUE: 2007 BMW 328i (certified used, $24,442).

TRADE-OFF: Last-generation styling and just one year left of BMW's four years of free maintenance -- but buying certified extends the four-year warranty by two years.


GOLD: 2010 Acura MDX ($43,040).

VALUE: 2007 Acura MDX (certified used, $31,207).

TRADE-OFF: The '07 model has a tad worse mileage and lacks such high-tech options as blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control. Buying certified extends the four-year warranty by one year.


Food and Wine

GROCERIES
Springing for gourmet? You don't have to pay an arm and a leg

GOLD: Whole Foods market. We priced a tasty market basket of shrimp, pizza margherita, Gruyere cheese, boneless strip steaks, balsamic vinegar, stuffed chicken thighs, free-range eggs, dark-chocolate hearts, ground turkey and a tray of California rolls. Tab: $72.10.

VALUE: Trader Joe's. Same basket of goodies, with two exceptions: stuffed chicken breasts instead of thighs and chocolate-covered cherries instead of chocolate hearts. Tab (calculated by the ounce, in sizes comparable to Whole Foods' sizes): $55.50.

TRADE-OFF: Trader Joe's lacks the glorious displays of produce and Whole Foods' lavish range of choices. Still, TJ's provides a cheery atmosphere and plenty of fun food.


EATING OUT
The secret to savings is booking lunch instead of dinner

GOLD: Almond-crusted salmon dinner entree at Legal Seafoods: $23.95.

VALUE: Grilled salmon lunch entree: $15.95.

TRADE-OFF: With dinner, you get a fancy lemon-caper butter sauce, plus mushroom ravioli and spinach. With lunch, you get the more casual cucumber yogurt sauce with orzo and pita chips.


GOLD: Dry-aged sirloin steak dinner entree at the Capital Grille, a steakhouse chain: $39.

VALUE: Dry-aged sirloin steak lunch entree: $24.

TRADE-OFF: At lunch you get a 10-ounce steak for the lower price, instead of a 14-ounce steak at dinner.


WINE
Other regions' wines come close to France's

GOLD: Henriot Blanc Souverain Brut ($37). Steve Tanzer, editor and publisher of Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, says this complex champagne delivers a toasty aroma, wonderful texture and long finish.

VALUE: Mont Marcal Brut Reserva Cava 2006 ($14). This Spanish sparkling wine, made in the champagne method, is a blend of chardonnay and two local grapes. The bubbly wine is fruity but dry with citrus flavors.


GOLD: Chateau Leoville Barton St. Julien 2006 ($55). Tanzer calls this red "a quintessential Left Bank Bordeaux" -- chewy, rich and of superb concentration.

VALUE: Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($19). Made in Chile by the same French family that distills France's venerable Grand Marnier liqueur. It has a flavor of ripe red currant, a hint of vanilla and a long, sweet finish. Try it with beef.


GOLD: Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay Art Series Margaret River 2005 ($75). This Australian winery produces some of the finest chardonnay wines in the world.

VALUE: Rustenberg Stellen-bosch Chardonnay 2008 ($17). South Africa is producing wines of finesse that often taste more Old World than New. This delicate, lightly oaked chardonnay with flavors of apricot and orange peel is produced just outside Cape Town, but it tastes Burgundian.

TRADE-OFF: You give up status and some elegance.


Real Estate and Home Improvement

HOME IMPROVEMENTS
Three ways to give your housing budget a break

GOLD: The Miele La Perla II dishwasher (G2832) sets the standard at $2,508.

VALUE: The Whirlpool Gold (GU3600) is $899 in white or black or $999 in stainless steel. Like the Miele, it has a steel interior, it handles almost as many place settings (14 versus Miele's 16), and it has Whirlpool's best sound-dampening package.

TRADE-OFF: A bit less energy-efficient than the Miele but uses less water per load.


GOLD: Slab granite for countertops will run you about $50 to $80 per square foot, but rare colors and "exotics" can cost much more.

VALUE: Formica 180fx replicates the look and scale of exotic granites in nine colors for $15 to $22 per square foot installed, excluding the edge finish.

TRADE-OFF: You can't put hot pots on Formica, and it will scratch.


GOLD: A stone driveway (cobblestone, flagstone or granite Belgian block set in concrete) provides natural beauty for a minimum of $15 per square foot installed.

VALUE: Stick with a concrete or asphalt driveway, but border or accent it with stone (or brick or concrete pavers). Bordering two sides of a 12-by-50-foot driveway would cost about $1,500 -- one-sixth of a total redo.

TRADE-OFF: Strictly aesthetic.


Fashion

RED-CARPET ATTIRE
Need a classy outfit for a special event? Try renting one

GOLD: Designer duds. A fashion-forward look with an open back and layered ruffle skirt, the asymmetric dress in silk heavy georgette from Brian Reyes is as perfect for a black-tie affair as it is for date night. Retail price: $2,100. Perhaps Herve Leger's Bold Bandage dress ($1,250) is more your style, or Christian Cota's Fanciful Floral ($1,450).

VALUE: RentTheRunway.com. Rent the asymmetric dress from RTR for $200 plus $12.95 for shipping. Or choose another look from over 40 designers for as little as $50. A standard rental period is four days. Reserve in advance, or request next-day shipping for last-minute occasions. Your rental will come in two sizes to ensure a perfect fit.

TRADE-OFF: Like Cinderella, when your time's up, the fancy dress is gone.


WATCHES
Either way, you'll always know what time it is

GOLD: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust. Rolex calls it "The Classic Watch," with a two-tone, steel-and-yellow-gold case and bracelet. The case, 31mm in diameter, displays the date, and the watch is waterproof up to 330 feet. Cost: $7,875.

VALUE: Bulova Bracelet Watch (model 98c60). It doesn't say R-O-L-E-X, but this Bulova is handsome -- with a similar two-tone design (all steel) and date display. Bulova is a U.S. company, and its timepieces carry a three-year warranty -- one year longer than the Rolex. Cost: $199 ($100 on Amazon).

TRADE-OFF: A Rolex defines status, and it keeps its value.


JEWELRY
Only your appraiser knows for sure

GOLD: Diamonds by the Yard bracelet at Tiffany's, designed by Elsa Peretti, with six diamonds on a platinum chain, $1,550.

VALUE: The $625 version -- same store, same designer, same design, but this version has five diamonds and a sterling-silver chain.

TRADE-OFF: Not only are there fewer diamonds, but they're also smaller, at a weight of 0.15 carat rather than 0.31. The chain material makes a difference, too -- sterling silver tarnishes, whereas platinum does not. As for the reaction to the little blue box: identical.


Financial Services

FINANCIAL PLANNING
Consider an a la carte approach

GOLD: A fee-only financial adviser can create a comprehensive plan and manage your investments for long-term goals (to find one, go to www.napfa.org). Many set investment minimums of $250,000 or more and charge 1% per year of assets under management.

VALUE: Garrett Planning Network members (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com) typically charge $180 to $210 per hour on an as-needed basis, without annual fees or asset minimums.

TRADE-OFF: A piecemeal approach to your finances may be less efficient, but at least you'll be on track to accomplish specific goals.


BUDGETING
Use a free site and give your budget a boost

GOLD: For a generation, Quicken (www.quicken.intuit.com) has been the software of choice to record income and expenses, generate budgets and pay bills. The software costs $60 for the basic version and $90 for the premier, which has more bells and whistles.

VALUE: The free budgeting site Mint.com -- now owned by Quicken parent Intuit -- uses your passwords to grab financial information from your banks, credit cards and other financial providers. It produces clean pie charts detailing your spending and alerts you to attractive rates on savings accounts and credit cards. Plus, it offers tools such as "projected savings," which forecasts how reining in spending now will help you reach your savings goals later.

TRADE-OFF: With Mint there's no bill-pay feature, so you have to pay via your bank, for example, and then download the transactions to Mint. Quicken will pay bills and record the expenses simultaneously for $9.95 a month. The service isn't cheap, but it's convenient.


CREDIT CARDS
Get even more rewards points for a lower annual fee

GOLD: With the new American Express Premier Rewards Gold charge card (with a charge card, you pay the balance every month), earn three points for every dollar spent on airline tickets, two points for gas and groceries, and one point for everything else. The $175 annual fee is waived for the first year. You can transfer points to 18 frequent-flier accounts. There's no earnings cap on points and they never expire.

VALUE: With the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express credit card (www.penfed.org), you earn five points for each dollar spent on airline tickets, triple points for hotel and dining purchases in 2010, and one point on all other spending. The $50 annual fee is waived the first year.

TRADE-OFF: To get the PenFed card, you must be a member of the Pentagon Federal credit union, which you can join for $20. You cannot transfer points to a frequent-flier program, and points expire in five years.


CREDIT SCORE
You may not need the cadillac of credit monitoring

GOLD: Fair Isaac (www.myfico.com), the creator of the FICO score, offers the TransUnion and Equifax scores, which lenders are likely to use, for $15.95 per report. You also get access to the FICO Score Simulator to estimate the effect of what-ifs on your score.

VALUE: Credit Karma (www.creditkarma.com) offers one credit score, a credit report card explaining factors that make up your score and access to its credit simulator -- all for free.

TRADE-OFF: Credit Karma gives you TransUnion's TransRisk score, which isn't quite the same as the one lenders use but has a 97% to 98% correlation.


HOME SALES
You can get full service for less

GOLD: Full-service sales agents generally charge 6% of your home's sale price for marketing, negotiating with buyers and closing the deal.

VALUE: You can negotiate with agents to accept a lower commission, or consider agents with ZipRealty.com, who charge one percentage point less than the going rate in your area from the get-go or a minimum of $2,000. ZipRealty agents serve 36 metro areas, primarily in California, Florida, Texas and the Northeast.

TRADE-OFF: None, as long as you don't cut the share of the commission -- usually 3% -- promised to the buyer's agent to ensure that agents will bring their buyers.


TAX PREPARATION
Software does the trick for most returns

GOLD: A certified public accountant or enrolled agent will charge $400 to $500 or more to prepare your return, depending on complexity.

VALUE: Use tax-preparation software such as TurboTax, TaxACT or H&R Block at home. Answer the interview-style questions about your job, family and finances, and the program will automatically fill in the correct tax forms. The programs can also import income and investment data directly from most employers and financial institutions, reducing errors. Prices range from free to about $50 for the most popular federal tax programs, plus extra charges for state returns. Go to www.tax-compare.com to see which program will work best for you.

TRADE-OFF: A few hours of your time and the guts to try something new. But in most cases you're on your own if you're audited by the IRS. If your tax situation is really complicated -- you invested in real estate or exercised stock options, for example -- then stick with a pro.


Travel

EXOTIC VACATIONS
We found destinations that rival your dream vacation but without the nightmare price tag

GOLD: Fiji. Flying to the South Pacific island from Washington, D.C., costs $3,724 for two round-trip tickets. Luxurious over-water bungalows at the five-star Likuliku Lagoon Resort run $1,286 a night for two, including all meals.

VALUE: Panama. Head to the Caribbean at the four-star Punta Caracol, in Bocas del Toro. "Eco-friendly bungalows" start at $344 a night, including some meals and activities. The flight from D.C. to Panama City is less than $600 round-trip for two. Panama City to Bocas del Toro: $240 round-trip for two.

TRADE-OFF: Panama is lower on the scale of exotica.


GOLD: Savor Vienna's coffeehouses, music and architecture with a $2,325 package from Orbitz, including round-trip flights from New York City and a six-night stay for two in May at the four-star Hotel Bellevue.

VALUE: Budapest. Aim further east for Old World European charm -- for $1,908. The Orbitz trip includes round-trip flights from NYC and six nights for two at the four-star Danubius Hotel Flamenco.

TRADE-OFF: You will miss the palaces of the Hofburg and Schonbrunn in Vienna. But Budapest has castles.


GOLD: Napa Valley is the U.S. hot spot for oenophiles. Yountville, a Napa hub, offers luxury lodging at rates ranging from $285 to $884 a night. Expect $10 to $50 tasting fees at wineries.

VALUE: Sierra Foothills. The eastern side of California offers more-affordable wine country. Lodging in Sutter Creek starts at $99 a night at Hanford House Inn. Plus, most area wineries don't charge a tasting fee.

TRADE-OFF: Lacks Napa's upscale appeal and proximity to San Francisco.


FOREIGN LODGING
Two options for a Paris sojourn

GOLD: Hotel Residence Foch. Among TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice top picks for family hotels in Europe, the three-star hotel in the Champs-Elysees area offers a family of three a weeklong stay in early May for $2,381.

VALUE: Rental flat. One Montmartre studio listed on HaveninParis.com has a spectacular view of Sacre-Coeur. It's ideal for two but can sleep three and includes free international calls and a full kitchen for $963 a week in May.

TRADE-OFF: Montmartre is a little off the beaten path for tourists.


College

Some in-state schools rival the curriculums of specialized private programs

GOLD: (music) The Juilliard School. Annual cost: $46,410.

VALUE: Indiana University at Bloomington. Annual in-state cost, $16,951; out-of-state cost, $34,498.


GOLD: (engineering) MIT. Annual cost: $50,292.

VALUE: Georgia Institute of Technology. Annual in-state cost, $16,810; out-of-state cost, $35,220.


GOLD: (drama) New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. Annual cost: $56,726.

VALUE: University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Annual in-state cost, $13,533; out-of-state cost, $25,479.

TRADE-OFF: You lose bragging rights to a degree from a world-renowned institution, as well as the creative energy of New York City or the student-centric sizzle of Boston. But at half the price or less, you can afford a bus ticket to the Big Apple or Beantown.


Technology

SMART PHONES
One-touch phone comes close to matching Apple's archetype

GOLD: Apple iPhone ($200 with two-year AT&T contract). A throng of competitors have imitated but never quite matched the iPhone's elegance and ease of use.

VALUE: HTC Droid Eris ($80 online price after $100 discount and with two-year Verizon Wireless contract). The feature-packed touch-screen talker has a crisp, colorful display, a 5-megapixel camera, a GPS receiver, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0.

TRADE-OFF: Running Google's Android software, the Eris doesn't quite match the iPhone's features, fit and finish. But it comes pretty close.


LAPTOPS
Yup, it's cool Mac versus nerdy PC

GOLD: The MacBook is stylish, lightweight and powerful. At $1,000, however, it's awfully pricey.

VALUE: The $600 Hewlett-Packard Pavilion (dm3-1130us) has a 13.3-inch color display -- same as the MacBook -- but it's a half-pound lighter and has more memory and storage.

TRADE-OFF: The MacBook boasts a more vibrant screen and slightly longer battery life. You may not be as cool with the HP Pavilion, but saving $400 could help you feel smarter.


TV SERVICE
Do you really need 265 channels?

GOLD: DirecTV satellite service offers 265 channels at an average of $84 a month.

VALUE: For $8.99 a month, NetFlix will stream all the movies you can watch to your TV (you'll need an Internet-ready set, TiVo or a game console). Plus, you get all the DVD rentals you desire (limit: one at a time).

TRADE-OFF: Being limited to broadcast TV (which looks good in digital) means you give up ESPN and the Food Channel.


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