Big Steam sales can be a great way to save on games, but it’s not always a guarantee you’re getting the best deal on a given game during a given sale. Here’s how to ensure you’re getting the most for your money.
The seasonal Steam sales—especially the big Summer Sale—have been a great way to save money on games since they were introduced over a decade ago.
But just like when you’re looking at a markdown price tag at your local department store, sometimes what looks like a great sale isn’t always a great sale—or even a sale at all. Let’s look at some simple strategies to ensure you’re not wasting your money.
Use Your Wishlist Liberally
Lots of different retailers have wishlist functions and you might have gotten used to ignoring them. Steam’s wishlist function is actually pretty useful, however.
It’s not just a place to park things and forget about them, Steam actively monitors the list and fires off an email when games on your wishlist go on sale.
This is particularly useful because it’s not dependent on big sales, the wishlist notification will trigger for any discount, not just when a game is discounted for the Summer Sale or such. When Double Fine Productions released Psychonauts 2 in August of 2021, for example, the developer deeply discounted the original Psychonauts as part of a new-release promotion—but independent of any major sale.
The default Steam list doesn’t track prices—it won’t tell you that something is one sale right now but it was on a better sale three months ago—but it’s first-party and the most reliable way to get notified when a game you’re interested in on Steam is on sale.
Pay Attention to Publisher Sales and Bundles
The nod to Psychonauts is a good place to point out the money-saving power of publisher sales and bundles.
Publisher sales are when a publisher discounts games across its entire catalog or, more frequently, across an entire franchise. If you’re looking at a sale list and Fallout 4 is on sale, for instance, there is a good chance that all the other games in the Fallout series are on sale too.
On top of that, Steam also has bundle discounts that apply, in most cases, even if you own games in the bundle. So let’s say you already own Fallout 4 but see there is a big Fallout bundle that includes Fallout 4.
Historically, that might not have been a wise purchase because, in the past, Steam bundles didn’t play nice with your existing library. Now, however, you can purchase a bundle with the included discount minus the cost of the game you already own.
In the case of publishers releasing bundles that include all the games in the franchise, you can make out like a bandit if you’ve already purchased the most expensive flagship AAA title. You can often scoop up the entire back catalog of a given franchise for a few dollars because the discount is so great and you’re not buying the newest and most expensive title. It’s also a great time to purchase DLC at a deep discount.
Anytime you see a franchise game on sale (inside or out of a major Steam sale) be sure to check other games in the franchise, look for bundles, and see if the DLC is on sale.
Check and Track Prices with Third-Party Tools
Steam is great and made purchasing, organizing, and playing games practically frictionless, but that doesn’t mean you need to rely on it solely for pricing insights and sales.
Just like there are tools, such as CamelCamelCamel, for tracking the price histories of retailers like Amazon, there are tools to track the price history of Steam products.
IsThereAnyDeal tracks Steam prices, showing you the current price and the lowest historical price for any given game in the Steam database. It also shows you the price across multiple other popular game stores and offers a range of tools to help you keep an eye on potential purchases. You can set build collections, set price alerts, and quickly compare prices between Steam and dozens of other stores.
Purchase From Third-Party Stores
In addition to watching actual on-Steam sale prices directly or with third-party tools, you can also simply purchase the game from a third party website.
If you want the Steam experience (full integration with the launcher and friend list, achievements, etc.) then you’ll want to purchase an actual Steam key you can import into Steam. There are a lot of very sketchy key-seller sites out there so right out the gate we’re going to encourage you to avoid any sites like CheapSteamKeyz.ru or such nonsense.
On these third-party sites, you can purchase Steam keys at discount. Depending on the time of year and the current sales on Steam the discount can be quite substantial. After purchase you’ll get an email with the key and/or it will appear in the dashboard for whichever site you’re using. Then you just add it to your Steam account and you’re good to go.
If you just want to save money and you’re not particularly hung up on absolutely having the game in the Steam ecosystem, you can branch out into not just third-party key sellers but completely different stores.
The smash-hit indie game Stardew Valley often goes on sale on Steam, but it also goes on sale equally frequently on platforms different store platforms that aren’t tied into Steam like Good Old Games and the Microsoft Store.
You should also consider checking if the game is available directly from the publisher if the publisher runs their own game platform—such as is the case with Ubisoft and Electronic Arts.
Check to Ensure You Don’t Already Own The Games
This might seem like a strange bit of advice but bear with us. If you already own the game on Steam, it’s obvious. When you go to purchase it again, you’ll see you own it.
But with the proliferation of game platforms and the huge number of game giveaways, it’s unbelievably easy to get a free game and forget all about it. Since it launched, for instance, Epic Games has given away hundreds of free games—and that’s just one of the many places you can score free games. Add in Prime Gaming, a subscription to Humble Choice, and the free and discounted games just pile up.
With that in mind it’s unbelievably easy to find yourself in a situation where you claimed a free game on Epic Games, or elsewhere, a year or more ago and then you see the same game on sale on Steam and think “Wow, I remember I wanted to play that game!” only to purchase it despite already owning it. (If that sounds 100% autobiographical, I assure you it is.)
While you can search your email for transaction receipts (even “free” games come with email confirmations in most digital stores) it’s way more efficient to take advantage of the cross-store game organizer Playnite. Playnite allows you to import your game lists from many different game stores so you can easily see if (and where) you already own a game.
If you’re always hitting up /r/gamedeals and snatching up all the free games deals, using a tool like Playnite is practically a must to avoid falling into the re-buying trap.
But if you use a tool like Playnite to keep track of all your purchases and combine it with all the other tips here like setting price notifications and shopping across game stores, you can always ensure you’re getting the most for your money.