Archive for Holidays

How to Save Money and Time on Shipping this Holiday Season (and throughout the year!)

With the holidays rapidly approaching you should already be giving thought to which gifts will need to be shipped. If done carelessly, shipping costs can end up higher than the cost of the item being shipped.

For budget-conscious gift givers, there are really only two carrier choices: the US Postal Service (USPS) and United Parcel Service (UPS).  They each have pros and cons. Both are simple to use, and relatively convenient. If your goal is to save money, you must stay away from any of the “pack & ship”–type stores. UPS stores we’ll discuss a little later.

Frugal shipping isn’t complicated; there are only three factors that you need to consider when your goal is to save money, they are: size and weight, distance, and speed.

1. Size and weight

If the item is very large and very heavy, UPS is very likely going to be your best bet. What is large? Anything over 130 inches in size (length + girth).

If the item is heavy for it’s size, but still small enough to fit into one of the USPS flat rate boxes, that will be your best deal.

Flat rate shipping boxes are shipped at three low prices2: $4.80, $9.85 or $13.50 for boxes weighing up to 70 pounds. The small flat rate box is 8-5/8″ x 5-3/8″ x 1-5/8″, medium flat rate boxes come in two sizes: 11″ x 8-1/2″ x 5-1/2″ & 11-7/8″ x 3-3/8″ x 13-5/8″, and the large flat rate box is 12″ x 12″ x 5-1/2″. Even if the item isn’t heavy and you want 2-day delivery3, the flat rate box offers an incredible deal. Keep in mind, though that the post office doesn’t actually guarantee 2-day delivery, so if it’s critical, this isn’t the choice for you! The one requirement for using the flat rate box is that you actually have to have a flat rate box on hand. From personal experience I’ve found they rarely have them available at the post office, so plan ahead and order some from the USPS Postal Store, they’re free and will be delivered to you.

Sending to someone in the military?

The Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box ships for $2.00 less when sent to an overseas APO or FPO address. Price is based on qualifying ZIP Code.

The cut-off date for Priority Mail to make it to APO/FPO addresses is December 11, 2009 for most zip codes4.

For more information see Sending Military Mail in Time for the Holidays.

You don’t actually have to have an official USPS box to use the priority mail service, only for the flat-rate service. Any sturdy cardboard box can be used. Priority Mail prices are based on weight and distance (except for the flat rate boxes).

2. Distance

Both the post office and UPS calculate shipping costs based on “zones” which is just a fancy way of determining how far the package has to go. Priority Mail flat rate boxes are exempt from the zone-based pricing, but regular priority mail pieces are subject to zone pricing.

3. Speed

How fast does it need to get there, or how long did you procrastinate the shopping, wrapping and packaging? Yes, you can get a package delivered overnight, but that’s not a frugal choice. Speed is the third factor the shippers use to calculate price. If you’ve got a week or so to allow for transit time, you will get the lowest price. As a general rule: Priority Mail is delivered in about 2 days, Parcel Post in 2-9 days, UPS Ground in 2-7 days. These aren’t hard and fast numbers, as distance, weather and demand all affect actual transit times.

What’s next?

Okay, you understand the basics. Now it’s time to package your item. The old fashioned method of wrapping a box in brown paper and tying it with string is a thing of the past; in fact, UPS won’t accepted packages prepared that way, and the post office may charge you extra for handling. What you need is a good sturdy cardboard box, some packing tape, and something to pad the contents (bubble wrap, packing peanuts, newspaper, etc.).

Where to get a good box

If you’re shipping in an official Flat-Rate Priority Mail box you just need to get one from the post office, or order some online. It takes about 5-10 days to get them delivered, so keep that in mind, and plan ahead. If all else fails, post a free “want” ad on Craigslist and you’re bound to find someone with some extras on hand.

The post office also has several other Priority Mail boxes, which are also free. They range in size from 6″ square boxes to shoe boxes, they even have tubes available for mailing posters. Once again, supplies at individual post offices may vary, so don’t procrastinate.

Remember, our goal is to save money here, so chances are you’ll need to find a box to re-use. Do NOT go out and buy one. There are free boxes everywhere! Better to re-use them than have them end up in a landfill anyway. Ask at work, ask your neighbors, ask the family who just moved in down the street (if you need a really big one). Grocery stores, retail stores, and restaurants all have a constant stream of boxes moving in and out of their business. (TIP: if you’re going to ask at a restaurant, don’t go in the middle of lunch or dinner.) Ask, ask, ask. (and don’t forget to say please and thank you!)

If your box has a bunch of markings on the outside it might make it difficult for the carrier to easily see the label. In that case your best bet is to turn the box inside out. If that presents a problem at least make sure that any barcodes and addresses have been blacked out with a permanent marker.

Using packing tape, secure one end of the box closed. Don’t cheap out on the tape, either. You don’t have to cover every edge, but make sure the box is well secured.

Packing Tape

Packing tape, is, well it’s packing tape. It’s not masking tape, it’s not cellophane tape, it’s not duct tape (though it will work!). You can get packing tape with or without reinforced threads; if you get plain, you will be able to tape over the labels when shipping UPS.

Now, using the packing material of your choice, put a layer of material on the bottom of the box for padding. (Keep in mind that newspaper is heavier than packing peanuts or bubble wrap, but it’s free, so…). Now that the bottom padding is in, load your wrapped gifts inside. Try to keep an inch or two of space between the items and the edge of the box for more padding material. Hundreds of thousands of boxes get transported around the world each day, and they do get dropped, banged and bumped, so make sure you’ve got a decent amount of padding. Once you’ve filled out the sides, add more padding to the top.

Now that your box is carefully packed, seal the top with more packing tape.

Weigh to Go

How you weigh your box will depend on how heavy it is and how big it is. UPS goes strictly by whole pounds here in the states, while the post office uses pounds and ounces.

If you have a small box you can weigh it on a postage scale or a food scale if you have one. You could take it to mail room at work and weigh it there (they’ll probably have a scale), or ask the cashier nicely wherever you buy your groceries if they’ll pop it on the scale for you and weigh it. Another option is to go into the self-service area of the post office and weigh it there.

saving money on shipping using a fish scale

For heavier boxes, or over-sized boxes, my clever husband thought of a unique solution. He bought me a digital fish scale. With this scale I either put the box in a plastic bag or rig it up with a piece of clothesline and hang it from the hook. It’s accurate and can be done by one person.

The other solution (for heavy boxes only) is to use an accurate bathroom scale. Weigh yourself without the box, then, weigh yourself with the box. The box weight is the difference. Using this method you’ll need someone else to read the scale, because chances are, you won’t be able to see the numbers on the scale while holding a large heavy box.

Okay, so the box is packed, sealed and you have an accurate weight. Now take a quick jaunt to the USPS website and the UPS website and use their “calculate postage” wizards to compare services and prices. Once you’re made that decision, buy your postage online, print it and affix your label to the box. The post office doesn’t want you to tape over the barcode, but UPS seems to prefer it.

Especially during the holiday season, buying your postage online will save you time, as well as money. Who needs to stand in line when everything you need is right there at your computer?

To save the most money on shipping with the post office, it is essential that you use the “Click-n-Ship®” service. The postage prices are about 14% less including the free delivery confirmation.

Wrapped and Ready

Now that your package is ready to go, you need to get it into the hands of the carriers. If it’s going UPS, you can give it to any UPS driver, or drop it off at a UPS customer counter or UPS Store™. For Priority Mail, you can request free pickup by the post office or you can give it to your carrier if you see them. If you’ve used “Click-N-Ship®” you can request carrier pick-up when printing your labels, or just put it into the self-service parcel bin at the post office. If it’s too big for the bin, look for a section of the counter where you can slide it over without waiting in line.

About The UPS Store

Many of these stores are operated by individual franchisees. They don’t make a whole lot of money on the shipping part of the deal, instead, making their money on the packing. Paying someone to package your items for shipping adds quite a bit of dough to the bill. But, if you have something delicate, and you’re not sure how to pack it safely, just shrug it off and pay for it. Even frugal old me paid UPS to pack a framed (with glass) print last year. And the packing cost more, much more, than the shipping. It really is a matter of time for money. If you have money, and don’t have time (well, you probably woudn’t have read this far) go for it, but if you’re like me and have more time than money, pack your boxes yourself. These convenient little stores have many other features, so don’t discount them completely. I needed something notarized, a few months back, and it was really convenient to stop by on my way home from grocery shopping. They also have copiers, specialty papers, mail boxes, etc.

Other things to consider:

  • Always compare the price of parcel post with priority mail – depending on the size & distance, the price difference to upgrade may be a small as a nickel.
  • Use the online shipping tools to save both time and money. You will need to register if you actually want to purchase postage online, but it’s fast and easy, and it makes shipping a breeze.
  • UPS’ prices include insurance; with the post office it’s extra, but still affordable. Always opt for insurance if what you are shipping is valuable.
  • UPS provides tracking numbers for all packages. The post office offers delivery confirmation (free if you buy your postage online, 70¢ extra if you pay at the counter). Delivery confirmation won’t tell you where a package is, just when it gets delivered.
  • Mondays and Fridays are the worst days to ship, with regard to standing in line. Ideally, you’ll purchase the postage online and be able to avoid ANY waiting.

Other resources:

USPS Postage Calculation Tool

USPS Measurement Tips

Price comparisons1,2,5,6

Weight 3 lbs 2 oz, Zip Origin 23322, Residential Delivery

Zip Code: 44026 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 72774 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 95726 Transit Time7
USPS Priority Mail 7.62 2 days3 9.78 2 days3 14.03 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– SMALL Flat Rate Box

4.80 2 days3 4.80 2 days3 4.80 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– MEDIUM Flat Rate Box

9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– LARGE Flat Rate Box

13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3
USPS Parcel Post 7.94 5 days 9.20 6 days 11.57 7 days
UPS Ground 10.38 2 days 14.33 3 days 16.18 5 days

Weight 8 lbs 14 oz, Zip Origin 23322, Residential Delivery

Zip Code: 44026 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 72774 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 95726 Transit Time7
USPS Priority Mail 13.04 2 days3 18.00 2 days3 26.30 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– SMALL Flat Rate Box

4.80 2 days3 4.80 2 days3 4.80 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– MEDIUM Flat Rate Box

9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– LARGE Flat Rate Box

13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3
USPS Parcel Post 11.24 5 days 12.55 6 days 15.90 7 days
UPS Ground 12.37 2 days 15.77 3 days 19.31 5 days

Weight 17 lbs 4 oz, Zip Origin 23322, Residential Delivery

Zip Code: 44026 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 72774 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 95726 Transit Time7
USPS Priority Mail 19.91 2 days3 27.35 2 days3 39.66 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– MEDIUM Flat Rate Box

9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– LARGE Flat Rate Box

13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3
USPS Parcel Post 14.60 5 days 15.99 6 days 23.76 7 days
UPS Ground 14.52 2 days 18.86 3 days 29.46 5 days

Weight 35 lbs, Zip Origin 23322, Residential Delivery

Zip Code: 44026 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 72774 Transit Time7 Zip Code: 95726 Transit Time7
USPS Priority Mail 29.81 2 days3 36.42 2 days3 63.29 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– MEDIUM Flat Rate Box

9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3 9.85 2 days3
USPS Priority Mail

– LARGE Flat Rate Box

13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3 13.50 2 days3
USPS Parcel Post 20.62 5 days 24.08 6 days 38.61 7 days
UPS Ground 22.54 2 days 29.06 3 days 49.67 5 days

1UPS Ground includes insurance up to $100, insurance from the post office starts at $1.75.

2 Prices for USPS Priority Mail are all for online “Click-n-Ship” postage purchases, prices at the post office will be higher! Parcel Post postage cannot be purchased online through usps.com.

3The 2-day transit is an ESTIMATE and is not guaranteed by the post office.

4Military Mail Addressed to APO/FPO AE ZIP 093 cut-off date is December 4th.

5Prices on this table are from November 2009, rates for shipping can be affected by the size of your box if it is oversized, and that is not being considered in these numbers.

6Flat rate prices assume contents will fit in the flat rate boxes.

7Transit time does not take into account non-work days for each carrier: add 2 days transit time for UPS and 1 day for USPS if your package will be in transit over the weekend.

The information shared in this article is current as of it’s writing. Opinions expressed are those of the author; readers are encouraged to use information in this article as a starting point for their own shipping experience.

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