Weighing the pros and cons of free shipping clubs

should you join a free shipping club?
should you join a free shipping club?

Free shipping clubs -- which require members to pay money upfront to receive free shipping -- sound suspiciously like yet another scheme from online retailers to milk more money out shoppers, but SmartMoney.com says "not so fast:" Believe it or not these clubs can be good deals.

Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Overstock.com, Sears, SmartBargains.com and Walmart all offer some sort of free shipping club membership. The cost of membership can range from $79 per year at Amazon.com and Sears/Kmart to $10 per year at SmartBargains.com. Besides the free shipping, these sites claim to offer members deals that they wouldn't get otherwise.

Whether the membership is worth it, however, "depends on your buying habits," says SmartMoney. If you shop at a particular retailer a lot, then the membership fee will be more than made up for in free shipping and discounts. But again, you'd have to shop a lot.

I called on the most frugal shopper I know – my mother-in-law – and asked her what she thought of paying money in advance to get shipping and coupons at no extra charge. Her reply: "Honey, that's crazy? Save your money." After adding up the pluses and minuses, it seems to me that she's correct.