Amazon Prime member Heather Monaghan says she and her fiancé get about half their shopping done this way: toiletries, paper products, nutritional supplements, cleaning supplies, pet items and specialty foods.

The couple set up regular deliveries for some of these through Amazon's Subscribe & Save program, which offers a 15% discount on recurring orders. For example, the cat litter that cost $15 at the store costs $9.99, including delivery.

"We eliminate those (frequent) shopping trips," says Monaghan.

Packages on the porch
Some other reasons to buy everyday necessities online:

  • It's hard to find parking in your town. (Do you want to pay $2 at a garage so you can run in and buy contact-lens solution?)
  • You want to buy in bulk but don't live near a warehouse store.
  • You work long or odd hours and find yourself buying cold medicine at a convenience store because everything else is closed.
  • You live in a food desert or too far from supermarkets and drugstores to make shopping easy.

Retailers that offer free shipping generally require a minimum order, usually from $25 to $50. That's not hard to do these days. And if you need only $19.99 worth? Add a few other necessities to the order, if the price is right. (Hint: Extra dental floss or toilet paper won't go stale sitting around for a couple of months.)

Deliveries are done through both the U.S. mail and private carriers; some companies have their own vehicles. Grocery services such as Peapod and Safeway.com schedule deliveries during specific time frames, but most companies can't guarantee exactly when your orders will arrive.

Depending on the neighbourhood, a package might be left on a porch or inside a main entryway, or with the doorman if you live in a big apartment building. Afraid the delivery won't be there when you get home? Sara Dunham of Savings.com suggests asking your boss if you can receive deliveries at work.

Getting in on the action
How do you find free delivery and the best everyday deals? The easiest ways are to:

  • Check deal/coupon sites. Look for a free-shipping section, or search only for deals that include free delivery.
  • Sign up for e-mail newsletters and alerts from cash-back sites.
  • An aggregator called FreeShipping.org lets you search for free-delivery deals and other discounts.

Or just head over to the merchants that interest you. If free shipping is an option, it'll be trumpeted on the landing page. Eager to build customer loyalty, online retailers tend to put all their best deals right where you can see them.

Savvy consumers can benefit from the competition as merchants jostle for attention. For example, while some sites enforce weight limits for free delivery, the newly launched Wag.com doesn't -- even on large bags of pet food and cat litter. It also has a "shared cart" policy with sister sites Soap.com, Diapers.com and BeautyBar.com. You can mix and match items from all four companies to reach the minimum required order for free shipping. (I'll take a catnip mouse, a box of detergent, some moisturizer and a bag of Huggies, please.)

Drugstore.com ships free to Army Post Office addresses (with a minimum $49 purchase), so that's where Karen Hoxmeier of deal site MyBargainBuddy bought sunscreen and other items for a relative serving in Afghanistan. Otherwise, she says, "it would have cost me more to ship it than to buy it."

Tips from the pros
If you're looking to save, it's vital to know what things normally cost. Otherwise, what looks like a hot deal could turn out to be merely lukewarm.

A chain pharmacy offered free shipping plus 40% off its private-label over-the-counter medications, which sounded like a good thing. But allergy sufferer de Grandpre found that the generic Claritin at Costco.com was about half the cost, even though he had to pay for delivery.

"Free shipping -- they may be magic words, but they're not always the best deal," he says.

Price comparisons are easy to do on cash-back shopping sites, which factor rebates and coupons into the final prices. You are using cash-back, aren't you? These sites have their own coupons, and the rebates add another layer of savings.

"(Everyday items) have probably been one of our best growth categories," says Craig Cassata of Mr. Rebates.

Sometimes cash-back sites offer exclusive short-term deals. A recent example is 100% cash-back and free delivery of Dial liquid soap from Wal-Mart, through ShopAtHome.com.

Keep these tips in mind, too:

  • Prime opportunity. Not sure whether you'd shop often enough to make Amazon Prime worth it? Take advantage of its one-month free trial. Have a big shopping list ready, though: If you decide not to renew, you'll have gotten a bunch of stuff without paying for delivery.
  • Don't be a brand loyalist. Search by category, not manufacturer. Trying a new brand can save you money.
  • Make your first buy a big buy. Some companies give new customers free shipping no matter how little they order. But why order a little? If you find a screamin' deal on your favourite teabags or toothpaste, stock up. Keep an eye open for gift items while you're there, too; don't forget to check the clearance section.
  • Bundle your orders. Is the free-shipping threshold too high? Share an order with a friend or relative.
  • Stack the discounts. At Soap.com, you can get an extra 10% off what you identify as your five favourite items, in addition to any other coupons or sales. Amazon Mom members who sign up for Subscribe & Save get a total of 30% off.
  • Watch those auto-refills. You're not locking in the current price when you enroll for recurring deliveries at sites such as Amazon or Drugstore.com. In other words, if the price goes up, you might be able to get a better deal elsewhere. Tricia Meyer of Sunshine Rewards notes that cash-back shoppers will probably be credited only for their first deliveries.
  • Stay in touch. Merchants often send special coupon codes (including free shipping) in newsletters or weekly e-mails. Create a separate e-mail address and sign up.
  • Save even more. Pay with a discounted gift card to bring your final cost down. But if your rewards credit card offers a greater benefit, use that.

Donna Freedman is "living 'poor' and loving it" as a freelance writer, baby sitter and handywoman in Washington state. You can find more of her writing at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").