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How to Save Time & Money at the Post Office (By Avoiding It!)

You don’t have to ask too many of my friends, or my wife, to learn that I am not a fan of waiting. I hate sitting in traffic, especially if it’s just “congestion,” and I really hate waiting at the post office, where it seems as if there are always twice as many counters as there are people staffing the counters.

So that’s why, over the years, I’ve developed a few simple strategies to help me avoid waiting at the post office. The overall strategy is to deconstruct the post office experience and try to avoid needing counter service whenever possible. Here are some tips to help you reduce the time it takes to get your packages on their way.

Buy A Scale

Everything starts with the weight of the package or letter. With a scale, you can weigh the package yourself and make some important time versus money decisions. It can also save you money when you avoid overpaying for postage.

For letters, the standard postage is 44 cents for letters weighing an ounce or less. Bump it up to 61 cents if it’s 2 ounces or less, 78 cents for 3 ounces. With a scale, you can avoid putting too much postage on the letter.

For packages, review the first class mail prices [3] but the all important tipping point is at 13 ounces. If your package is over 13 ounces, you will be required to go the post office if you use postage stamps. If you use Click-And-Ship or print postage from an authorized vendor, then you can drop it into a blue bin.

Media Mail vs. First Class: If you are mailing media (such as books), media mail is cheaper if it’s over 7-8 ounces (which books typically are). A media mail package under 1 lb. is $2.38. Also, as long as you print the postage online (ie. don’t use postage stamps) you can drop the package in a mailbox and avoid a trip to the post office. Originally I erroneously wrote that media mail had to be taken to a post office but Reader Steve, who works at the USPS, said that was unnecessary. The USPS reserves the right to open the package to confirm it’s media but you don’t need to make a trip.

How to Print Postage At Home

If you’re shipping something by Express Mail, Priority Mail, Global Express Guaranteed, Express Mail International, or Priority Mail International, you can print your postage online at USPS.com’s Print Shipping Labels page [4] for free. You will need to register an account and sign in, but to reward you the system will remember your return address and credit card details (if you want) so you can save time entering that information.

You will save time on any packages you want to mail by Express and Priority Mail because instead of waiting in line at the post office, you can drop the package off in a blue USPS mail box. Your package gets free delivery confirmation.

First Class & Media Mail: For whatever reason, you can’t print First Class or Media Mail packages from USPS but you can print it from PayPal. Visit this link [5] to enter the details and print out a label. The only “cost” is that you’re required to pay $0.19 for delivery confirmation.

Request Package Pickup

If you are shipping by Express MailĀ®, Priority MailĀ®, or International, you can request pickup service from the USPS [6]. The 13 ounce rule applies if you use only postage stamps. Otherwise, if you print out an electronic label, the weight limit is 70 pounds.

For package pickup, the carrier will pick up your packages along with your regular mail and the service is free. You can schedule a pickup on demand, where a carrier comes in a specified 2-hour time frame, for $15.30 a trip.

Try Village Post Office

The USPS started a new program where they partner with businesses and offer a “Village Post Office.” You can find them online through the USPS’s search features and they’re great because so few people know about them. The one closes to me is a convenience store so you have to compete for attention with the store’s customers, but I usually find it empty when I stop by. I often bring them oversized packages that don’t fit in the blue box, after I’ve printed the postage.

Be Selective In Your Post Office

Each ZIP code has it’s own post office but the busiest ones are those found in residential areas. If you know of a very commercial area (lots of stores, warehouses, transport facilities), try that ZIP code’s post office instead. My experience with this has been very good because stores, warehouses, and transport facilities don’t send a lot of mail through the USPS. This theory is further corroborated by the size of post offices in more commercial areas, they are typically significantly smaller. The 21045 (Columbia MD, very residential) ZIP code’s post office has six counters, the 21090 (Linthicum Heights, MD, which is beside BWI Airport) has only two.

Go During Slow Periods

A USPS spokesperson told Real Simple that the best time to go to the post office is half an hour after it opens. You avoid the morning rush and hit that morning lull. I’d link to it but Real Simple has since taken it down but I agree with the recommended times. I’ve tested this myself, shipping books off to the winners of Bargaineering auctions [7] and I try to go around around 10:30 AM, just before the people running lunch errands, mid-week. I avoid the days around major holidays too because that’s when the post offices are absolutely packed to the gills.

Also, the next time you go to your post office, ask them what the slow periods are. Your post office may not follow the same traffic patterns as the average, so learning specifics from the teller is crucial.

Do you have any suggestions for how to save time and money at the post office by avoiding it?

(Photo: houseofsims [8])