The budget laptop category is crowded, with enough diverse options to make your head spin. We’ll give you a list of our top picks in favor of some straightforward insight on how to buy the right cheap model for you.
Decide whether you need a laptop first
Is Your Smartphone Enough? That’s the question you should be asking yourself before going down the budget laptop rabbit hole. Today’s iPhones and Androids do all the Internet surfing, email checking, app shopping, and photo storage most of us need. If your digital tasks require more screen real estate than a cell phone offers and an actual keyboard, then a laptop may be up your alley. Before shelling out hundreds for a new computer, seriously consider your situation.
Find out how much you can budget for a laptop
Speaking of money, how many of your discretionary dollars (money for “want”) can you save? The nerd-favorite 50/30/20 budget suggests putting 30% of your after-tax monthly income toward non-necessities.
Popular review sites set a range of around $500 for a solid budget Chromebook or Windows laptop. You’ll get more for those budget dollars in a Chromebook, according to PCWorld, but you can also find relatively nice Windows models. New MacBooks are out of the question at that price point.
Do you know your “need” categories?
Get the app to track your spending and break down your trends before you create your 50/30/20 budget.
Get unbiased advice on laptop models and specifications
Here’s the tricky part. Talk of difficult technology, a plethora of models at various price points, and an endless scroll of “best” review sites make it hard to make sense of it all. But it’s important to know what kind of specifications and performance you can expect at the $500 laptop level. Start with reputable reviewers who do unbiased, insightful testing and write in plain language, like Consumer Reports and PCMag. Doing your homework will help you decide whether a budget laptop will really suit your needs.
buy a laptop that is on sale
Waiting for seasonal sales can drop the price of budget laptops even further. If you’re a patient person, the sales on and around Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and Cyber Monday make it a great time to buy consumer electronics like laptops. August is also a good month to look for computer deals that coincide with back-to-school season. Wait until then and you can buy a better model for less.
Buy from a reputable retailer or refurbisher
It may take more than one purchase to find a budget laptop you love. Cheaper models may lack the features that matter most to you. Give yourself the freedom to test and learn by buying from a known retailer — like Best Buy, Amazon or Target — that offers a reasonable return window.
You can even buy a used model to save money on a high-end model, and the process shouldn’t be a hassle. Refurbished Apple retailer Mac of All Trades sells a variety of refurbished MacBooks (under $500 at the time of this writing) that are tested and come with a 1-year warranty on the hardware. Gazelle, a pre-owned electronics site known for used cell phones, also sells secondhand MacBooks and has a 30-day return policy.
Ready to Buy?
Pay cash (i.e., in full and in advance) if you can. Buy now, pay later, which is a type of installment loan many online retailers now offer at checkout to split up your purchases. Though BNPL plans may involve charges and interest, hence it is the best reserve option for essential expenses.
A credit card with a 0% APR introductory offer might be a better option if you don’t have all the cash right now but can pay it back before the interest rate kicks in. By doing this you can also increase your budget. For a level above budget laptops.