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Is group-buying really saving you money? Add to ...

Like so many other middle-class Canadians with young children, I occasionally entertain this fantasy of going out to dinner without feeling guilty about discretionary spending. So you can imagine how my heart leaps when I find a group-buying coupon in my inbox. Only $25 for $60 worth of food and drink at a swanky downtown restaurant!

Turns out that I'm not alone: 49 per cent of us have visited group-buying sites, according to a recent survey by OneSpout, a service that aggregates deals, filters them according to your preferences and sends you a single e-mail containing all the coupons.

As many as 73 per cent of us end up buying stuff that we weren't looking for in the first place. And, wouldn't you know it, restaurant deals are the most popular unplanned purchase.

Are you really saving money when you jump on a Groupon, WagJag, TeamBuy, Dealicious, or other social-buying coupon -- or are you simply giving in to impulse shopping when faced with an irresistible price? Here are some tips on actually getting your money's worth from these vouchers, courtesy of OneSpout president Antonio Rodriguez.

1. Buy only what you will use. "People really love spontaneously buying things, but sometimes they get a little bit too excited," says Mr. Rodriguez. He says perhaps 15 per cent of all social-buying coupons go unused. There are U.S. websites, such as Lifesta, where you can resell your voucher, but they take a cut and you'll need to provide a U.S. address or credit card. (It may be a reasonable place to look for a cheap coupon, though there isn't much for Canadians to choose from.)

2. Take the deal if you're buying the product anyway. You know you have to take your significant other out to dinner for your anniversary, right? Or there's that sandwich shop next to your office that you regularly patronize anyway. Might as well save a few bucks on it. About 86 per cent of the OneSpout survey's respondents said they have saved as much as they have spent in the last 12 months.

3. Check the customer reviews. See if it's a restaurant or spa that others recommend -- or perhaps the price is cheap for a good reason and you're willing to give it a shot anyway. Either way, you know what to expect beforehand, and you go into it with your eyes open, Mr. Rodriguez points out.

4. Check the terms carefully. Don't show up at the restaurant with your hot date, or the go-karting arena with excited kids in tow, only to find out that your coupon cannot be used on evenings or weekends. "Each site and each deal has its own fine print," Mr. Rodriguez says. Coupons typically include an expiry date, and the price for restaurant meals doesn't cover taxes and tips.

5. Do your own homework. Remember Valentine's Day , when FTD's group-buying deal on flowers turned out to be more expensive than the regular prices on FTD's own website? Sometimes, a deal really isn't a deal.

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