A computer can often be one of the largest purchases you make, aside from home and auto, running well over $1,500 if you get a top model. However, if your budget doesn't allow for a purchase this large, don't fret — there are ways to buy a computer for a bargain and keep your budget intact.
Friends and family. The first place to start looking for a deal on a computer is from your friends and family. Often, they've just made a new computer purchase and are looking to get rid of their old one, for a small price (or even free). The only way to find out is by asking. Send out an email to everyone you know, and let them know that you need a working computer. See what comes back. Sure, it's not the latest model, but if all you need to do is do some word processing, email, games, spreadsheets and web browsing, you don't need a lot of power.
Other donated computers. Next, look for places online (try Freecycle.org) or offline that are getting rid of computers people don't need. Often you can get a free one that's perfectly workable. You just need to look around.
Buy used. Again, if you're willing to forgo the latest model (and you pay a high premium for the latest models), you can get some great deals on used (or "pre-owned") computers. Check your local classified ads, Craigslist, and garage sales.
Refurbished. The best online computer sites will take a used computer, fix it up with some new parts, and sell it as "refurbished". These are often excellent deals, and good quality if you go to a reputable buyer. See this article for more info. Plus, companies like Apple and Dell have a great refurb section with factory-reconditioned models at a discount.
Do your research. If you want a good deal, you should know what's out there, what models are good, what should be included and what shouldn't. Spend some time browsing some of the sites with the best deals: Newegg.com, Geeks.com, Buy.com, Amazon.com, and others.
Ebay, other auction sites. Ebay and other online auction sites are great places to look for new and used computers. You'll need to spend a little time looking for a good deal, putting in bids, and seeing if you win, but the time you spend can net you a great price on a good computer.
Build it yourself. If you have a little technical know-how, or are willing to put in the time to learn, you can buy a "bare-bones" computer for $50, and then add in a motherboard, CPU, RAM, and hard drive to get a computer for under $300. Then you can look around for a free monitor and peripherals, and you've got a bargain-basement deal.
Linux boxes. If you're willing to try something other than Windows, you can get a good deal on cheap computers sold with the Linux operating system. Or build one yourself (see above tip) and then install the free Linux operating system (Ubuntu is a popular version of Linux that's easy to use). The great thing about Ubuntu and other Linux brands is that they often come with lots of great software that's open source and free, including office software suites, browsers, games and much more.
Mac Mini. For those who are into the Mac OS for its aesthetics, simplicity, and lack of viruses, the Mac Mini is a great deal. It comes in at a little over $500, although you'll have to get peripherals such as monitor and keyboard separately. Although this is a bare-bones Mac system, it's perfectly usable for the average user, and you can always upgrade with more RAM if you'd like. Plus, it looks cool and it's so tiny that it takes up very little space on your desk.
Don't take financing. However you buy your computer, don't take the financing deals offered by computer vendors. While it may seem like buying something now and paying later is a good deal, and that it fits perfectly into your budget (only $20 a month!), you end up paying much more in the long run as these "deals" come with a very high interest percentage. Save up for a few hundred dollars and get a cheap computer on cash instead.