Online shopping offers an almost magical level of convenience. Just grab your phone, tap a few buttons, and within a couple days (or hours) a package arrives at your door. But it's all too easy to rack up a credit card bill higher than the stack of cardboard boxes in the recycling bin.
If you feel like you're spending more money online, you're not alone. Americans are forecasted to spend a record $1 trillion online in 2022, and it's not just pandemic habits driving that growth. Online inflation—higher prices for the same goods—accounted for $22 billion of the money spent online in 2021.1
Still, we may think the best deals are online. After all, the early days of dynamic pricing—retail sites price-matching competitors or making frequent price changes based on demand—did result in lower prices.2 But price fluctuations can now hurt buyers. Prices are numbers we simply don't "know" anymore (except for maybe a gallon of gas). While grocery shoppers 15 years ago probably knew a gallon of milk should cost about $2.50, many of us today can't ballpark what our frequent purchases should cost. Plus, after 2 years of online inflation, we're more likely to accept the price that shows up—even if it's more than expected—and pay anyway. Case in point: Americans spent $1 billion more online in May 2022 than in the previous month.3
To learn how you can shop online without busting your money goals, check out these 10 tips.
1. Stay focused on your needs
Online sellers want you to pay before you have a chance to think about it, so they make the experience seamless and enjoyable, with beautiful graphics, flashy sale banners, and one-click-to-buy features. Just as you might go into a store with a list in hand to avoid browsing, keep a visual cue close by of what you're planning to purchase—try a sticky note on your computer or phone. And remember to H.A.L.T.: Don't buy something if you're hungry, angry, lonely, or tired to avoid impulse purchases you might regret.
2. Treat your credit card like real money—because it is
Buying things can make us happy, and spending with a credit card can make us happier, thanks to the rush of dopamine our brains get when we pay for something.4 Buying online heightens the sense of distance from the purchase, making you feel like you're not spending "real money." To make sure you're not going off the rails, schedule a weekly reminder to check your credit balance, or better yet, transfer funds to pay it off. This trains your brain to treat it more like cold, hard cash, while still allowing you to gain points. Bonus: Paying off your balance won't hurt your credit score and could even protect it from dropping by keeping your credit utilization low.
3. Compare prices before you buy
Online shopping has eliminated "menu costs," a.k.a. paying to physically change prices, as restaurants do when they need to reprint updated menus. As much as prices yo-yo and don't stick in your brain, you can still trust your gut if a price seems high. Plug the item into your search engine to see if there's a better deal elsewhere, so you know you’re paying the least possible amount.
4. Use a (free) coupon browser extension wisely
You can add an extension to your browser that automatically scans for promo codes or discounts on the items you're shopping for.5 Unlike other pop-ups, these extensions only apply to what you're already looking at. That alone can save you money. That's because the "more you buy, the more you save" mentality—think: free shipping for orders over $50 or 20% off $100, 30% off $150—often leads to overspending. If you don't really need something (or it's out of your price range), don't let a coupon or buy-more discount convince you otherwise. Be especially wary of click-to-apply coupons, which have been shown to trigger a greater sense of reward—and entice you to buy more.6
5. If you don't need it immediately, wait
Online sellers will try to boost urgency with countdown clocks, timed carts, and warnings of limited availability (some true, others maybe not). But if you're logged in to a site and add something to your cart without checking out, the store might email you a discount to encourage you to finish your purchase. If they don't and you forget, then you probably didn't need the item to begin with.
6. Unsubscribe from mailings that send you ads
You entered your email to get that sweet 10% off your first purchase, and now you get daily reminders to come back and see what's new. Even if you delete most without opening, the few times your curiosity gets the better of you can cost you. The next time you click into an email like that, click unsubscribe, usually at the bottom of the message. Out of sight, out of mind. You get blasted with enough ads already, so saving yourself from having to resist is a smart money move in itself.
7. Avoid "buy now, pay later"
Point-of-sale loans that let you pay in 4 installments with only a quarter of the cost upfront—what's not to love? Up to 30% interest rates7 and fees up to 25% of the original price if you miss a payment, that's what.8 Unfortunately, you might miscalculate your ability to make the later payments, even if the first one seemed like a breeze.
8. Know the best time to buy, especially for big purchases
If you're thinking about getting new furniture or appliances, try to wait for the next holiday weekend. Retailers work extra hard on your days off, offering steep discounts during President's Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. If your patio chairs are on their wobbly last legs, see if you can hold out until fall. With end-of-season and off-season sales, you could snag serious deals on outdoor gear, furniture, and clothes.
9. Buy groceries IRL to avoid high fees
Grocery delivery might seem wise because you won't be tempted to add unnecessary items to your cart as you walk through the aisles. But grocery-delivery apps and services upcharge many items and tack on a delivery fee. Add the tip for your shopper or driver, and your final bill could be 50% higher than the actual value of the groceries.9
10. Consider buying used
Scoring a steep discount doesn't have to cost you an entire afternoon rifling through racks at a thrift shop (sorry, Macklemore). Major stores are buying back their brands' clothes and other items from previous buyers and then reselling them for less to people willing to buy used goods.10 The stores get thrifty, environmentally conscious shoppers, and you get formerly higher-priced goods at more-affordable prices.