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expaik 10-16-2012 10:08 AM

PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!
** NOTE: there are many informative follow-up tips and Q&A's in this thread, contributed from others as well as myself, so I strongly advise reading through the whole thing! This thread is also cross-posted on the Transaction and Feedback Forum, with its own set of useful followups:
** Update 11/18/13: Fedex Ground can be MUCH cheaper than USPS standard post for large heavy packages **
** Update 8/21/13: First-class international now includes free tracking to many countries! **
** Update 7/30/13: All domestic priority mail packages are insured automatically up to $50 value!!
** Update 6/2/13: International shipping labels can be printed at home!! **


I regularly receive packages from trading or buying on various forums, and it seems that 80% of the time the sender paid 2x to 3x what they needed to. Sometimes even senior swappers or experienced eBay sellers do that. There also seems to be an unnecessarily high number of losses and damaged parcels. High mailing costs and shipping snafus will add up and eat away at savings made by selling or trading. By being savvy about shipping, you can save a TON each month.

I'd love to share some trade secrets I've learned over the years. Many of you may already know most of what follows, but I'll bet there are at least a few things in here that are new to you!

0) Added 11/18/13. I just now discovered Fedex Ground for heavy packages. Up till now I had only shipped through USPS because I thought it was always the cheapest way, but I found that the cost to ship two large safety gate extensions (7 pound package, 40 x 12 x 7 box) cross country is only $13.68 for 5-day fedex ground home delivery using an online Fedex account. It's drops to just $10 (!!) if you ship to a commercial address. And Fedex automatically insures it up to $100, free. Using USPS standard post would cost $20 and no insurance would be included. And we all know how dog-slow and mishandled those standard post shipments are.

ETA (10/20/14): I’ve now become a devotee of Fedex SmartPost for heavy packages. It’s even cheaper than Fedex Home Delivery – basically it’s their equivalent of USPS Standard Post. In other words, it’s slow.. but a lot more trustworthy than Standard Post and cheaper. Be aware that this service is sort of a joint partnership with USPS – Fedex carries the package to the destination city and then drops it off at the local Post Office for USPS to deliver – the shipping label actually says “USPS” on one of the two printed bar codes.

So always explore Fedex ground options if you have a large, heavy item to ship that wouldn't fit into a medium flat rate box.

1) Ship through paypal from home. No post office trips and waits. Depending on the class of shipping, it can actually be cheaper than post office rates plus you get free delivery confirmation for priority/firstclass (or 19 cents for parcel/media mail DC), PLUS you have an automatic record of shipping and DC. Pay 80 cents to get DC at the PO and lose the receipt, and you're basically in the same boat as someone who didn't get DC.

Don't know what a package weighs? Make use of flat rate packaging (see #2) or invest in a cheap scale. I have two: an ounce kitchen scale that goes up to 1 pound - perfect for weighing first-class - and a large luggage scale that goes up to 50 pounds (great for anything over 1 pound). You can find these dirt cheap on craigslist. You'll quickly earn back the money you spent on them with the savings on shipping by printing labels at home.

Don't buy those expensive sticky labels for printing your shipping labels. Just print them on regular paper and cut out the label and tape the edges carefully to the package. I actually use scratch paper picked up from freecycle (as long as one side is blank, it's fine for printing labels!), plus I set my printer settings to the lowest quality (fast-draft) so I'm not investing a lot on paper and ink. Oh - I also reduce the size of the printed labels so as to save more ink, plus it helps when I'm trying to affix a label to a package that's small.

Caveat: paypal shipping does not give options for certain kinds of packages, such as padded flat rate or regional rate. If you want to ship using those, go to and use Click-n-ship. It works the same as paypal - you get the same rates and the same discounted/free DC.

1b) (added 10/19). What class of shipping should you use?

If your packaged parcel weighs 13 oz or less, do not ship priority. Many moms default to priority shipping on all their parcels because the post office offers free priority shipping materials, but this can be an unnecessary waste of money. Send lightweight items first-class using your own envelope or box. Studies have shown that first-class and priority receive pretty much the same handling (hence the same shipping speed), and first-class is cheaper. A 1-3 oz package ships for $1.64 including delivery confirmation (when done through paypal). A 13 oz package ships for $3.45 including delivery confirmation. And these prices are the same no matter where you ship in the US.

For parcels weighing over 13 oz, you can choose either priority or parcel-post shipping. People often think that parcel post is cheaper (because it goes by ground). However, I have found that 90% of the time, I can ship priority for almost the same or cheaper. Even when parcel post is cheaper it's usually only by $1 at most. The only exception is if the package is SUPER heavy (i.e. over 10 pounds) and is going a long distance. I highly recommend shipping priority if at all possible, because it is a far better class of service, with fewer sorting points, better handling, and much faster arrival (usually 2-3 days max). 90% of my experiences with misrouted, lost, or damaged packages have been when they were sent parcel post. I will discuss how to ship priority cheaply in the next few points.

Media mail (books, videotapes, DVDs, CDs, etc.) has very low rates for items that fit into this category, and is your best bet if you're shipping over a pound of media material. Be aware that it is VERY VERY slow (usually takes 2-3 weeks to cross the country). Your box will go through numerous sorting facilities and be handled roughly. Be sure to package well.

2) If you are shipping something heavy and dense via priority, take advantage of flat rate!! (NOTE: Don't ALWAYS ship heavy and dense things flat rate. See #3 below) USPS provides free flat rate packaging materials. The most handy ones are the padded flat rate envelopes, into which I've fit an amazing amount of clothing, diapers, etc. and the medium and large flat rate boxes.

Many don't know that there is a large flat rate "game board" box which fits about 1/3 more than the standard large flat rate. It's HUGE. Sort of like how the long MFRB can fit much more than the boxy shaped one. Same cost as the LFRB.

These boxes and envelopes are available for free on, but take 2 weeks or more to arrive once ordered, so stock up ahead of time. Many PO's do not carry the lesser-known ones - particularly the most useful padded FREs!!

3) If your stuff can't fit into a padded flat rate envelope, the medium or large flat rate box may NOT be your next best option. Many's the time I got something in a medium flat rate box (the sender paid like $13) when she could have sent it standard priority for around $5. If you live within regions 1 or 2 of each other, priority mail by weight is pretty cheap - often less than $6 for up to 3 or 4 pounds. For me, shipping within California is VERY cheap, and shipping to Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona is also about the same. Shipping to Colorado, Texas, and the other mid-west areas is also fairly cheap. Only when I'm shipping cross-country or if the package is REALLY dense and heavy do I use flat rate boxes.

TWO WORDS: REGIONAL RATE! These special types of flat rate boxes are designed to save you extra money on flat rate shipping. You can almost ALWAYS save by using these instead of the regular flat rate boxes. Only if you're shipping a very long distance, such as cross country, are these RR boxes of no use.

There are two kinds of regional rate most often used - A and B. The A box is slightly smaller than the MFRB while the B is slightly larger. These are lifesavers - they each cost less than the MFRB and LFRB respectively. Again, it depends where you're shipping to, but I've stuffed 14 pounds of stuff into a RR box A and shipped from San Jose to Los Angeles, for $5.04.

If I'm shipping a RR A box from California to Ohio, it's only 7.26, versus 10.85 MFRB. And the sizes of the boxes are almost the same.

Again, these boxes are often not found in POs, so order them online.

4) Know when to use envelopes/polymailers vs boxes. Be sure to ship fragile/breakable things in boxes. No matter how much padding/bubble wrap/foam/peanuts you put into an envelope, it simply isn't enough to protect fragile items, because the USPS will place heavy boxes on top of them or throw them. I've had too many cases of broken electronics that were sent in envelopes. Boxes can absorb shock and impact, and their structure helps keep the contents from getting crushed.

But if there's nothing fragile in your package - use an envelope, not a box! A box will add between 7 to 10 ounces to your shipping weight. Order polymailers from eBay (dirt cheap when purchased in big lots) for non-breakable things, where you need to minimize your shipping weight.

I always recycle padded envelopes and polymailers that I get in the mail. Why throw away after one use? And check freecycle - people are giving away huge lots of used mailing envelopes. I have long since stopped buying polymailers, with all the free used shipping materials out there.

4) GET CREATIVE! Sometimes, you have to think outside the box. If you're shipping a lot of items, you can often save quite a bit by splitting it up into two packages. For example, one Media and one first-class package will probably be cheaper than one combined parcel or priority package. Or if you cannot fit everything into a padded flat rate envelope, send the remaining stuff separately first-class - rather than upgrading to a flat rate box.

If you're shipping something irregularly-shaped or bulky, your ingenuity can save you many dollars. I've had to ship an all-in-one bassinet-changing-table-organizer attachment for a playpen. To send it as it was would have taken a HUGE box with lots of packing material and cost me close to $27. First, I disassembled it as much as I could, taking apart every hinge, screw, and snap (I did provide a video tutorial for the buyer to put it back together). Then I found that I could skillfully pack most of it a large flat rate "game board" box ($14.95). The only things that didn't fit where the two longest poles. I sent those separately first-class - making sure to protect it VERY well with thick bubble wrap as well as lightweight cardboard along the length so they didn't get nicked or bent.

The USPS-provided priority mail boxes are much sturdier and lighter in weight than your standard cardboard shipping and moving boxes. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes - and I'm talking about the non-flat-rate ones here. There are ones like a long tube, some like a small square box, etc. If you're shipping priority, you can cut these up and make your own box, thus lightening the weight. A fraction of an ounce can make a several-dollar difference in postage, so really minimize the weight of your packaging. (don't cut up the Flat Rate boxes obviously... these will automatically be charged the flat rate amount.)

Also, when using flat rate boxes, it's OK for the box to look misshapen or bulgy, as long as it closes on its normal flaps. I've stretched the definition of "closes on its normal flaps" quite a bit. Once I mailed a box that looked almost spherical. It took a ton of tape to ensure the ends wouldn't burst open. Another time, I had a large boxy shaped item that was too large to fit in anything but a large flat rate box. But by manipulating a Regional Rate A side-loading box so it was more box-shaped than flat-shaped (by creating a new set of edges), it fit just perfectly. Shipping ended up costing only $7, and it went through just fine. If I had used the large flat rate or a regular priority mail box, I would have paid around $15.

5) Play it safe and add extra packaging tape to packages. A very densely packed envelope or box WILL POP OPEN in transit. Even if that closure tab seems super sticky. (Post offices have free priority tape for customers to use on priority packages - this tape is a gift from heaven. Tape up the whole box or envelope with it.)

6) Play it safe and write either your own name&address or the recipient's name&address on the reverse side of the box or package from the shipping label. The label can come off the package or become illegible somehow, and then your package will go to limbo.

7) Insure, insure, insure. I insure anytime I'm shipping something super valuable, something moderately valuable but breakable, or something overseas without DC. And use third-party online insurance instead of post office insurance, which is over twice as expensive. U-Pic and Shipsurance are the two best companies. U-pic customer service is awesome, and they pay out claims in full, quickly, and without hassle. The USPS claim handling is slow, they're picky about whether you packaged it well enough for damage claims, and also anal about proof of actual value of the item damaged.

As of July 28, 2013, all priority mail packages with a bar code (either sent from a post office or with an online printed label) will be insured free of charge up to $50. This is ONLY for domestic, not international. If you need to add extra insurance to your domestic for a higher value package, I recommend going with u-pic.

Domestic insurance for packages with DC is only $1 through U-pic, covering $100 worth of value. $1.15 to Canada. And $1.85 for first-class international. Shipsurance is only $1.50 for first-class international.

8) Trading or selling a gift card or store credit? Obviously the most secure solution is to send it insured, certified, or at least with delivery confirmation. But some (me) feel it's overkill and would like to save money and send in a regular envelope.

Here's what I do. I take a good pic of the back that shows the gift card number and/or PIN. That way, if the letter gets lost, or "lost", I can at least recover the GC for online use. Some retailers will even replace it if you have the card number. And here's another secret: by knowing the card number, you can track its use. Most retail customer service people can tell you when and even WHERE it was last used - in case your recipient claims to not have received the card, you can check to see if it's actually being used, to see if you're being cheated.

Also, if I'm sending something a regular envelope without DC and want to protect myself, I take a video of myself putting the items into a stamped recipient-addressed envelope, and another one of myself sticking that envelope in a US mailbox. I upload the vids to youtube and send the link to the recipient. This proves to the world that I did send it, and to the right address, and seems to cut down on the number of "I didn't get it" claims. Note that this method of proof will not hold up against PP item-not-received claims, but it still helps me feel somewhat safer, and reassures the buyer that I did indeed mail.

9) Did the Post Office lose or damage your parcel? If it's not insured, you're unfortunately out the value of the contents, but you may be able to get your postage back. That helps!

Official USPS policy does not mandate that they refund you postage on lost or damage parcels. HOWEVER, it's discretionary. You can't get the refund from online USPS customer service or paypal/eBay shipping, but at your local post office. Most POs will issue a refund if you show proof of non-delivery or damage. Just talk to the manager and they will have you fill out a refund form. I've done it as least 10 times over the past 6 years.

10) Hate having to go to the PO every time you want to ship something internationally, first-class? You can print the label from home. Paypal doesn't have this option, but USPS Online does.

Use the USPS Click-n-ship. Rates are cheaper than at the PO too!!

WHEW. Hopefully some or all of these tips will help you out in the future. Happy trading and selling, and happy shipping!

Joyful Tie Dyes 10-16-2012 10:13 AM

Re: PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!
GREAT post!

formerlybailey 10-16-2012 10:13 AM

Thank you so much!!

expaik 10-16-2012 10:13 AM

Re: PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!
I hope it helps! I spent over an hour writing and editing it. :-)

mms1972 10-16-2012 10:17 AM

Awesome post!!!!!

Sent from my VM670 using DS Forum

wordmama 10-16-2012 10:36 AM

Sigh...I wish we had your postal system. Canada Post stinks!!

Great post mama - this should be stickied on FSOT!

Sent from my iPhone using DS Forum

PerfectFifth 10-16-2012 10:38 AM

Re: PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!
Wow, that is some great information! Can we sticky this, please?

mixed_chica 10-16-2012 12:12 PM

Re: PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!
Awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

suthrnmomto3 10-16-2012 12:21 PM

Re: PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!
Thank you! Now I need Internet on my computer and printer...I never knew any of this oh need scale too...would my electronic bath scale work?

expaik 10-16-2012 12:30 PM

Re: PSA: Please... Ship Smart. Save money, time, frustration!

Originally Posted by suthrnmomto3 (Post 15819442)
Thank you! Now I need Internet on my computer and printer...I never knew any of this oh need scale too...would my electronic bath scale work?

Yes, you'll need an internet-ready computer or laptop connected to a printer. Or you can print at a local library, though they may charge a few cents per page.

The bath scale probably won't work well for first-class parcels (under 13 ounces), since those have to be accurate to the ounce, but it might work for calculating shipping on packages heavier than one pound, since mail pricing on anything over 1 pound is tiered based on whole pounds, not fractions of pounds.

Those ounce food scales are cheap though. Try Bed Bath and Beyond if you can't find one used.

Another trade secret of a big-time penny pincher:

Back when I didn't have any scales, and wasn't shipping flat rate, I would take my packages with me on supermarket shopping errands and ask the clerk to weigh them at checkout. That gives you a 100% accurate weight!

Most post offices also have automated kiosks on which you can weigh your packages. You can weigh them there, then bring them home and print your labels. You're still saving money plus the line wait at the PO.

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