Avoiding online impulse buys

Three ways to curb online purchases you'll regret later

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    Impulse purchases can be harder to avoid online, where there is little time to reconsider the things in your cart.
    Christian Ohde / CHROMORANGE/Newscom/File
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Time for a confession here.

The single biggest challenge I have when it comes to avoiding unnecessary purchases is avoiding them online.

I think there are a few reasons for this.

First, I don’t have a chance to talk myself out of a purchase. In a store, I typically have several minutes between when I pick up the item and when I’m actually at the checkout purchasing the item. I often use that time to try to talk myself out of the purchase.

At an online store, those several minutes are reduced to several seconds. The time from putting an item into your “cart” to actually buying the item is drastically reduced at any well-designed e-commerce site. That leaves you with less time to actually decide whether or not to go through with the purchase, and the inertia of actually having the item in the cart often carries through until the item is bought and paid for.

Second, the process of paying is typically more convenient. If you have, say, an amazon account, you likely have your credit card information stored there. You don’t have to get out your wallet. You barely have to move to pay for an item. You just click – and it’s there.

Third, the access to online information often encourages you to buy. You’re sitting there at a web browser with a wealth of information at your fingertips. You’re able to research the item. Typically, because you’ve already decided you’re at least highly interested in the item, the information you find mostly just serves to reinforce that idea, at least in the short term.

Those three things, added together, knock down most of the defenses I have against impulse buying in brick-and-mortar stores. Given that I’m also at home during the weekdays to receive packages and it’s easy to see why online ordering ends up being a weakness.

What can I do to defend against unnecessary online purchases? I have a few things that tend to work pretty well.

First, I don’t store my credit card information in online sites. For me to go ahead with a purchase, I have to actually dig out my credit card or other payment information and fill it in manually.

This tactic tends to buy me the “several minutes” that I need to talk myself out of an unnecessary purchase. I can use that time when I’m digging out my credit card, studying the card to figure out what the number is, typing in the number, typing in the security code, grumbling when I get an error message telling me that the number is invalid, typing the number in again because I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between the worn 6 and the worn 8, and finally getting through. During that process, I’m quite likely to convince myself that I don’t really need the item.

Second, I use the “wishlist” feature of sites heavily. Often, instead of putting an unnecessary item into my online “cart,” I’ll just add the item to my wishlist on that site. My wife knows where many of my online wishlists are, so she sometimes trawls them for gift ideas, knowing that they’re full of items I have an interest in but won’t spend the money on (which means it’s a good gift idea).

Not only that, it’s also a way for me to give a product purchase some additional thought. From time to time, I’ll clean out a wishlist on a particular site and if something still seems strongly compelling to me, I know then that it might be worthwhile. The surprising thing is that I don’t have that feeling for the vast majority of wishlisted items that I look at later on.

Finally, I get really into comparison shopping and price sniping. Instead of just buying an item I desire, I’ll wait until it shows up at a price I’m willing to pay for it. I’ll use tools like this feed filtering trick to find items at the right price for me.

Often, during this process, I’ll eventually realize that I don’t want the item. Even if I do still want the item, I’ll know that in the end I paid less for the item.

This happened recently when I purchased a GPS unit for my father as a gift. I wanted to get him one with certain features, but we also happen to have something of a gift-giving budget. Rather than just buying a low-end one or blowing my budget, I waited patiently using some automatic searching tools (like the one linked above) until the right item came up at the right price (it took about five months).

These three tactics together have gone a long way toward curbing my online spending on unnecessary things.

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