The running joke about Twitter is that it's a great way to stay up to date on what people are having for lunch.
But the micro-blogging service is also one of the best ways to find a free lunch. Or coffee. Or the best discounts on things as varied as groceries, music and travel.
That's because many of the money-saving "tweets" you'll find there have been used and vouched for by other members of the Twitter community. And many of them are exclusive deals that you might have problems finding on the Web.
"It really lowers the barrier of the time you have to spend looking for these (discounts)," says Melissa Massello, the founder and editor of online magazine Shoestring, who has been using Twitter since 2007.
Moreover, because these discounts are being passed along in real time, there's a better chance of getting in on hot deals before they expire or are sold out.
Here's MSN Money's guide to the best ways to use Twitter as a money-saving tool.
Getting startedOnce registered, users post updates, known as tweets, of up to 140 characters about what they are doing or what they find interesting. These updates are posted on users' profile pages and pop up on the pages of anyone who is interested and decides to "follow" them. In turn, these users follow the people they are interested in.
The idea is to create a crowd of like-minded people so you have a better chance of coming across tips and bargains you are interested in. In addition to friends and relatives, you can find others who share your passions, such as surfing or scrapbooking, your geographic area or your situation, such as "mom" or "single." Certain groups are more likely to pass along deals relevant to your lifestyle.
"I follow a lot of other bloggers with sites similar to mine," says Tara Kuczykowski, a Columbus, Ohio, "mommy blogger" and Twitterer. (On Twitter, she's known as @dealseekingmom.) "We all chat and learn from each other and share ideas for posts that way."
Kuczykowski's recent posts have included alerts on cereal coupons, a free beach umbrella promotion at Rite Aid and a buy-one, get-one-free promotion at Ben & Jerry's ice cream shops.
For deal seekers, there are three sources of information:
- The friends, family and shared-interest acquaintances you acquire on your own.
- People or companies that aggregate Twitter posts for you.
- Companies that offer special deals to their followers.
Follow your 'tweeps'To find deal-oriented Twitterers, or "tweeps," use basic search terms such as "coupons," "bargains," "frugal" or "saving money," Shoestring's Massello suggests. Then sift through these tweets to find actionable tips and check out profiles to find Twitterers you want to follow.
Aligning yourself with others like you has payoffs: Travelers, for example, can find other budget-minded wanderers or travel columnists who will pass along under-the-radar cheap lodging recommendations, such as @BudTravel (Budget Travel magazine) or @frugaltraveler (The New York Times' budget travel writer). Surfers or campers can find advice or recommendations for cheap gear. Your fellow wine lovers will help you find the best bottles under $10.
And if you have a lot of friends and followers, don't hesitate to reach out to them through your posts for inexpensive gift recommendations or even free places to stay for the night, experts suggest.