After testing out deal-finding browser extensions, I decided to take things mobile to find out just how effective money-saving apps are. For this test, I ended up buying a few items — toothpaste, deodorant, and toilet paper — because I figured that they’re things that I can always use. I’m happy to report that I got some pretty good deals. I tried three money-saving apps for the experiment:

  1. Ibotta
  2. Flipp
  3. Retail Me Not

I have to say, they add some fun to shopping for household basics in two ways.

First, using money-saving apps is like a scavenger hunt: Is the sale item available?

Items can look very similar on the shelf, but they may not be the ones on sale. Second, I ended up trying a product that I would not otherwise have tried. Now I smell “Active Fresh”!

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1. Ibotta

That new smell is the Secret deodorant that I bought to test the Ibotta app, which offers a cash-back program on special deals. You tap “Find Offers,” then choose a category, like “Grocery,” “Pharmacy,” or “Beauty and Wellness.”

When you decide on an offer and buy the product, you scan the receipt with the camera on your phone. Then the app adds a rebate to your account. You can collect via PayPal, starting at $20.

Ibotta allows you to look at deals offered at stores near you. At the shop I chose, it also looked as if I might be able to score some Newman’s Own Frozen Pizza. Sadly, the pizza was not on the freezer shelf. But I did score in the deodorant aisle: a $2 rebate on the $6.59 price.

Now I have to get another $18 in rebates in the app. Is that really thrifty? I think I’ll know in time, but only if I purchase items that I need, not things that the app is encouraging me to buy.

It also gives offers and promotions at other sites. For example, you can get three percent cash back on tickets to events via Seat Geek. And there are “any brand” offers, too: If you purchase any brand of deodorant, you’ll get 25 cents back.

Which, I assume, is just a ploy to keep me looking at the app and using it. But if that will ultimately save me money, I’m okay with that!

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2. Flipp

If you live near a few big stores, the Flipp app allows you to compare their weekly circulars easily. When you click on an item, the app circles it in yellow and “clips” the coupon. It also tracks the dates of when the circular is still applicable.

Are Money-Saving Apps Worth It? An Experiment - Flipp App Stickers
Some of the stickers on the money-saving app Flipp

I use a contact lens solution that I'm always buying, and Flipp allowed me a no-hassle way to see where it was on sale. I also bought 12 rolls of toilet paper for $6.99 and a big tube of Colgate toothpaste for $2.99.

In reality, I could have seen that circular if I walked into the drugstore, rather than on the app. But here’s the thing: I probably wouldn’t have gone to that particular store otherwise, since it’s a little farther away than other shops.

Flipp also has an account program for rebates, but the interface is a little less clear than on Ibotta. And I don’t want to get sucked into two programs. (Flipp also has really cute “stickers” that you can send in text messages.)

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3. Retail Me Not

I had used Retail Me Not on my phone before I started writing this column. I was once in Staples printing a large document, when I remembered a coupon for printing on a previous receipt. I searched the web to see if that coupon code was still floating around out there. It wasn’t, but there were tons of others.

As I found with browser extensions, the challenge with money-saving apps is that you have to be careful and make sure that you're buying things you actually need. Does a free gift with a $25 order at Sephora save me anything? Pass.

And because I consider in-store credit cards to be an absolute no-no, the fact that I can save 30 percent by using a Kohl’s card does not impress me.

Retail Me Not does offer some deals on gift cards, which can give you an automatic savings if you use them for yourself: Buy a $50 gift card for $45, and you’ve already got a 10-percent discount.

What I don’t know is, can a discounted electronic gift card be combined with other offers? If you find out, let me know!

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Like the Ibotta and Flipp, Retail Me Not allows you to build up your “savings” in an account that will pay out later. Again, my advice is to use the app to find specific savings on what you need, then take yourself out of the game before you spend on things that you don’t need.