Tips to Help You Shop Smart Online

Shopping online is easy, quick, and convenient—perhaps a little too convenient. Follow these tips to help you shop smart online without blowing your budget.
shop smart online Woman on a cell phone and laptop.

Ah, the thrills and perils of online shopping. Whether you do it for convenience, speed, time savings, or sport, online shopping has made it crazy-easy to buy the things we need (and those we don’t) in just a few clicks. Although being able to get pretty much anything delivered to your doorstep can be a huge benefit, especially if you’re sick or unable to leave your home, it can also make it far too easy to overspend

Whether you’re shopping for clothes, cleaning supplies, furniture, video games, pet essentials or anything in between, here are six tips to help you shop online more mindfully, so you can enjoy this modern convenience without blowing your budget.

1. Abandon your cart for a day or two.

There’s a reason why sales are advertised as “limited time” offers. The urgency that’s created in these flash sales is intended to convince you to buy something you really don’t need, or at least, don’t need right this very moment.

Get into the habit of adding things to your cart (to get the thrill of shopping), but then, taking a day to gut-check yourself: Do you actually want or need this thing right now?

It may look awesome online, but is it something you would really use? Does it fit into the context of your everyday life? Does the cost-per-use justify the expense, or is it a lot of money for something you might only use once or twice? Are you only looking at it because a well-positioned Facebook ad caught your eye, or is it something you’ve actually been wanting or needing? Do you have other savings goals you’d rather prioritize over this purchase?

Sometimes you may want to buy something because the object represents something you aspire to be, not necessarily who you are at the moment—for instance, buying a projector to host amazing arty movie nights at your place. But the truth is, you might not have a suitable wall to project films on, or you’ve only hosted one party at your place in the past five years, and realistically won’t host another one for another five years.

Give yourself some breathing room to make sure it’s something that would add value to your life, and that you’ll put it to good use. If, after 24 hours, it still feels right, then go for it (after following the rest of these tips!).

2. Check the return policy.

Before you hit the “Place Order” button, you’ll want to check the store’s return policy. While many online retailers have incredibly customer-friendly return policies, others make it difficult and expensive to return something you don’t want to keep.

Here are a few questions to answer before you submit your order:

  • Does the company allow returns? (Some retailers, like online food retailers, may not allow you to return their products for safety reasons.)
  • Do they charge for returns? (Is there a restocking fee, or a charge for return shipping?)
  • How long do you have to return the item? Some companies allow 30 or more days, while others give you a much tighter window, like less than a week.
  • Will you be able to get a refund onto your original payment method, or just a store credit? Store credit might be fine for a retailer you use regularly, like Amazon—but if you don’t know if you’ll want anything else from a specialty store, you’ll want to make sure you can get your money back directly.
  • What do you have to do to initiate a return? Is it a quick, online process that will take just a few clicks, or will you have to call their office in Timbuktu at midnight during a full moon to make it happen?
  • Will you have to print a return label, or will they provide you with one?

The more flexible and user-friendly the return policy, the less risky it is to order something. If it’s difficult to return, or it’ll cost you to return something, you’ll want to do a little extra research to make sure it’s the right item. The last thing you want is to buy something you don’t love, and then let it collect dust in your closet because of a clunky return policy.

If the store has a retail location near you, or it’s available for sale somewhere closeby, you might even check out the item in person and then choose to buy it online (if nothing else, for the convenience of getting it delivered to your door). This is an especially smart move for purchases like furniture, which typically take longer to ship and cost money to return.

3. Read credible reviews.

Reading reviews of something you have your eye on will help you make an informed choice, and help you figure out if it’s actually the right thing for you. For things like kitchen or tech gadgets, check consumer review sites written by trusted authorities to see what experts are saying about a product. This especially comes in handy for something you personally don’t have a lot of knowledge about, or pricier/larger items that might be more of a hassle to return, such as a computer or an area rug.

Be wary of products that have a lot of reviews, but not a lot of comments (or not a lot of variety in the comments). Some companies will write fake reviews or use bots to make their shoddy products look beloved by all—when they’re actually poorly made. Many sites will mark reviewers as ‘verified customers’ to help you differentiate between genuine reviews from real customers, and fake reviews that companies might have generated themselves.

Talking to friends who have made similar purchases recently can also help you decide whether it’s the right time (or thing) to buy.

4. Figure out your success criteria.

We’d be remiss to not mention staying within your budget as one of your success criteria when shopping online.

If you’re looking to buy something, setting an upper limit for how much you can spend on it before you start looking can help you avoid derailing your budget. If it helps, create separate Goals for one-time planned buys, so that one purchase doesn’t lead to a shopping spree.

But beyond budgeting, there are other success criteria you might want to consider before starting your search—for your own sake. Depending on what you’re trying to buy, doing too much research can start to get overwhelming. Let’s say you’re looking to buy an area rug for your living room: In addition to price, there are probably 100 other factors that you could consider before making your purchase.

To avoid analysis paralysis, figure out what features are most important to you to help you narrow things down. If you have pets, you can probably rule out rugs that are light-colored (will show accidents), super high-pile (prime for chewing!), or unable to be cleaned (again, accidents). You might decide that a machine-washable, low-pile rug with a neutral color pattern is the right fit. Figuring out your success criteria before you start your search can help you make the right decision without going down too many rabbit holes.

Promotional deals sent to your inbox are designed to entice you to buy stuff you don’t necessarily need or can afford. To avoid such distractions, create an email account just for emails from your online stores. That way, you won’t be constantly flooded with online deals, and you can easily sift through to find order confirmations, tracking information, and other important info related to your online purchases.

To avoid temptations, you might also unfollow the Instagram accounts of your favorite stores.

6. Use e-coupons and compare prices

One of the greatest things about online shopping is that it allows you to compare prices between sites, and try coupon codes that might not be available (or easy to find) in stores.

Look for coupon apps that help you save at the stores you frequent most. There are also cash back apps that will pay you back a percentage of your purchases. Before you buy anything online, do a quick search of ‘[merchant name] coupon code’ to see if there are any deals flying around that you can take advantage of.

Copy the item name into your Google search bar and compare prices at different stores by looking at the ‘Shopping’ tab.

Beware of online premiums too: Although sites like Amazon offer many of the same products you’d find in a store, there’s often an upcharge built in for that convenience—even if the shipping is free. If you’re buying laundry detergent online for the convenience of it, but you don’t need it right now, you might find a better deal at your local supermarket during your next grocery run.

Shop smart online

Shopping online puts the whole world at your fingertips, which can be a huge benefit or a huge liability, depending on how you use it. The big danger with online shopping is that there aren’t many barriers to spending money. Unlike shopping in a store, you don’t have to put much effort or thought into adding things to your cart. But by planning ahead and taking intentional steps to do your homework before you buy, you can stay in control of your shopping experience, and use it to help you save both time and money.

For more money-saving tips, check out the Budgeting section of our blog.

Disclaimer: Hey! Welcome to our disclaimer. Here’s what you need to know to safely consume this blog post: Any outbound links in this post will take you away from, to external sites in the wilds of the internet; neither Simple nor our partner bank, BBVA USA, endorse any linked-to websites; and we didn’t pay/barter with/bribe anyone to appear in this post. And as much as we wish we could control the cost of things, any prices in this article are just estimates. Actual prices are up to retailers, manufacturers, and other people who’ve been granted magical powers over digits and dollar signs.