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9 ways to curb out-of-control online shopping

Allie Johnson

November 13, 2015

When shopping for holiday gifts and such online, the temptation to add a few extra items to your shopping card is hard to resist. After all, we can just return them later, right?

If your credit card balances are brimming due to out-of-control buying, there are tricks you can use to keep your online spending in check.

Online shopping is accessible, quick and easy — and  that can be a big part of the problem, says Terrence Shulman, counselor and founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding.

And it's booming. The National Retail Federation projects online sales this month and in December will increase between 6 and 8 percent to $105 billion. NRF's overall retail sales forecast projects an increase of 3.7 percent, slightly down from the 4.1 percent rise posted a year ago.

And with online deals starting weeks ahead of Cyber Monday, here are nine ways to help remove temptation, halt impulse buying and keep your digital shopping habit in check:

  1. Start with a budget. First, check your household budget to see how much money you have for an online shopping trip, says Kyle James, who runs the deal site Rather-Be-Shopping.com. For example, if you've got $100 earmarked in your budget this month to buy new boots, don't go over that amount — and don't forget to factor tax and shipping into the total. Remember, no online “deal” is actually a good deal if you don't need or, worse, can't afford the item, James says.
  2. Get off the list. Have you signed up to be on the email list of every retailer from Anthropologie to Zappos? If so, unsubscribe now, especially if the emailed offers tempt you, James says. If you ever want to sign up for a retailer's email list to get a special discount, set up a separate email address so the new offers won't flood your main inbox, he says. And don't forget about social media: Unfollow (or unlike) your favorite stores. Stores “have gotten very good at separating you from your money by promoting ‘amazing' sales and deals via their feeds,” he says. Instead, wait until you actually need a coupon code or a deal, then go hunting for it.
  3. A few tweaks can make a difference to help you be more moderate with your spending.”
    — Terrence Shulman,
    counselor and founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding

  4. Limit your shopping access. Do you know you have a tendency to shop when you're stressed or after you've had a glass of wine? Reduce your access to your favorite online stores, especially when you're vulnerable to making a purchase you might later regret, Shulman says. For example, tools such as Freedom can block websites or apps. There are also browser add-ons that let you block certain sites. For example, April Benson, a psychologist who specializes in over-shopping and runs ShopaholicNoMore.com, says one of her clients enlisted the help of adult children to install parental controls on the client's computer. “It's really helping,” Benson says.
  5. Use a separate browser. When you shop online, consider using a separate browser – for example, use Safari or Firefox for shopping if you use Chrome for everyday Internet surfing. If you use the same browser to shop and check the news or Facebook, online retailers can use ad retargeting, so that an item you looked at, but didn't buy, follows you all over the Web via ads on different sites. By using cookies on your browser, retailers hope that if you see the item often enough, you'll eventually go back and hit the “buy” button.
  6. Don't fall for pressure tactics. Have you ever felt compelled to buy something because you saw an ad for a one-time-only sale or spotted a note next to an item telling you there was only one left? Those are tactics used to create a sense of urgency. “These are basically gimmicks — if you don't act now, you're going to lose out,” Shulman says. “You might miss one particular item, but it won't be the end of world.”
  7. Question yourself. Before you hit the buy button, ask yourself  “Is this a want or a need? If it's a want, how badly do I want it? Do I need it now or can it wait? Where will I put it? Can I afford it?” (And having room on your credit card doesn't count, Shulman says.) These questions can help you think through your purchase before you buy, Shulman says.
  8. Do virtual window shopping. If you delay your purchase, you'll have time to think it through more carefully. For example, put an item you want to buy into your online cart, then wait 24 hours before going back to make the purchase. Or you could bookmark the item you want or add it to a wish list. Shulman uses the tactic for his own shopping, he says. “About 50 percent of the time, I decide I don't really need that book or that CD,” he says.
  9. Don't store your card info. At an online checkout, don't create an account and save your credit card information for next time, says Scott Rick, assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. If your credit card number, expiration date and three-digit code are not stored, those digits can't get filled in automatically next time you go to make a purchase at that store. “Forcing yourself to enter that info from scratch each time is likely to be aggravating, and might be a nice deterrent,” Rick says.
  10. Get help stopping your shopping. If you're still having a hard time curbing your shopping habit, it might be time to seek help. Benson offers a text messaging program to help people with shopping problems, and it is tailored based on a survey the individual answers. If your weakness is online shopping, you'll get a text message before Cyber Monday, then on that day, she says. You also can send a text to the system any time you're tempted to shop, and it will send a message back. “We attempt to create a pause so the person can regroup and think it through,” she says.

If you have a serious online shopping problem, you might need more help in the form of therapy, support groups such as Debtors Anonymous or even medication, Shulman says.

But if you just have a slight tendency to spend without thinking it through, you probably can address the issue on your own, Shulman says. “A few tweaks can make a difference to help you be more moderate with your spending,” he says.

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