When Comparison Shopping Is Worth It -- and When It's Not

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Consumers are advised to comparison-shop for everything, but a new survey reveals that not all time spent bargain hunting is time well spent.

Insurance.com surveyed 2,000 men and women about their comparison-shopping habits, asking people how much time they spent comparison-shopping for common purchases and how much they saved when they did the research. The company then calculated the savings per minute to illustrate when it makes the most sense to shop around.

The bottom line, if you've got a limited amount of time to comparison shop:

  • Savings per minute are highest for car insurance, cellphones and cable services.

  • Savings per minute are lowest for gas and new cars.

Given that the survey was conducted by a comparison-shopping service for insurance, it's not surprising that car insurance scored the highest in the savings per minute measurement, with an average of $54 saved for each of the 10 minutes spent comparison shopping, for a total of $540 saved. However, that calculation was based on consumers who did their comparison shopping using Insurance.com. All the rest were based on self-reported metrics about how much time the respondents spent comparison shopping and how much they saved.

Other findings:

Cellphone plans
Average shopping time: 97 minutes
Average annual savings: $179
Savings per minute: $1.86

Cable TV or other programming
Average shopping time: 144 minutes
Average annual savings: $248
Savings per minute: $1.72

New cars
Average shopping time: 13.6 hours
One-time savings: $1,054
Savings per minute: $1.29

Average shopping, driving, or wait time: 320 minutes
Average annual savings: $119
Savings per minute: 37 cents

Tthe survey asked consumers about how often they comparison-shop. More than half (54 percent) said the hassle of going to multiple stores or even just to multiple websites was a factor when they decided not to comparison-shop, and 40 percent said the time commitment of comparison shopping was too big.

Time Is Money -- Spend Yours Smartly

Convenience, no surprise, is key. The survey showed that consumers are typically more willing to spend time price shopping on items they can compare online as opposed to ones where the research needs to be at multiple physical locations. Even if the savings is small, so is the time commitment if it takes just a few clicks.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-884%Another way to use your time in the wisest way is to focus on items that have the biggest savings potential in dollar terms (like major appliances), but also consider things that will reward you with an ongoing savings payoff.

For example, spending time comparison-shopping for prescription drugs -- ones that you have to take on an ongoing basis, such as ones for allergies or blood pressure -- means that you're saving money on every refill. Shopping around to find the best price for a baby shower gift, however, saves you money just once.

How Much Time Are You Willing to Spend Shopping?

The following list shows how much time on average that consumers said that they were willing to spend looking for a better price on these items:

  • Airfare: 68 minutes

  • Laptop computer: 68 minutes

  • Auto insurance: 63 minutes

  • Hotel rooms: 53 minutes

  • Rental car: 48 minutes

  • Clothing: 41 minutes

  • Children's toys: 36 minutes

  • Prescription drugs: 34 minutes

  • Groceries: 33 minutes

  • Pet food: 26 minutes

  • Beer or alcohol: 17 minutes

  • Cigarettes: 16 minutes

So, how much time are you willing to put in comparison shopping? Chime in below.

Michele Lerner is a Motley Fool contributing writer.