Banner ads and other marketing ploys offer alluring deals, but they can cause you to overspend while shopping online. Avoid the trap with this expert advice. 

By Karla Walsh
October 27, 2020
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Nearly half of all Americans plan to shop online this holiday season—among the bigger shifts in the way we’ll be spending, compared to 2019,the research company Morning Consult reports. While malls, big-box retailers, and discount stores were hugely popular Black Friday stops in years past, the pandemic and related safety concerts have turned interest to online holiday shopping. And while it might seem like a small pivot (Amazon Prime Day and other digital deals have become shopping musts this decade), our virtual-first mindset is likely to change the holiday shopping game completely, predicts Jill Gonzalez, an analyst with WalletHub.

“When people go shopping in stores, they usually have a goal in mind of what they want to buy and how much they're willing to spend. However, online shopping comes with more distractions, which typically cause consumers to spend more than they originally intended,” Gonzalez says. 

Take that virtual “shopping cart.” Once you add an item the retailer might suggest another. “Before you know it, you've browsed through dozens of pages and bought a lot more things than you initially wanted to,” she says.

But we have good news: It is possible to stick to a budget and score some pretty incredible deals online. Below, Gonzalez and Christina Lucey, the director of product and financial advocate for Credit Karma, share their top shopping secrets to make the most of your money this unique holiday season.

Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

7 Budget Dos and Don’ts for Christmas Shopping Online

The first and most important step is to decide how much you can reasonably afford to spend this holiday season. Once you have that top of mind, use these tips to stick to your budget.

Don’t Impulse Buy

Buying items on a whim is a common budget buster, and it's easy to do while shopping online. So instead of clicking “confirm order” right away, list the items you're thinking about purchasing and then wait 24 hours, suggests Lucey. "Once you’ve had time to think it over, you’ll know exactly what items you need versus items you just want,” she says. If you're still tempted to buy a "want" but it's not in your budget, wait until a better deal is available, she said. 

Do Comparison Shop

If you want a particular item, study all the variations of it (say, the different models and sizes of the Instant Pot you are considering), and all the product competitors (other electric pressure cookers and multi-cookers). Identify which retailers are selling it and any deals they may be offering. "Start tracking prices for your most wanted products as soon as you can," Lucey says. "It’s not uncommon for retailers to jack up prices before a big sale to make it look like you’re getting a better deal than you really are.” Once you've done your research, you'll be empowered to make the best possible decision.

Don’t Fall for Free Shipping Traps

Some retailers offer free shipping once you hit a certain threshold. If you don’t need any additional items though, pay the shipping fee instead of putting more items in your cart. “In most cases, consumers will increase their spending just to avoid paying for shipping, and actually spend more overall in doing so,” Gonzalez says.

Do Check Coupon Sites, Download Savings Apps, and Take Advantage of Deal Plug-Ins

“If you were already planning on spending the money, you might as well take the extra step to get some cash back,” Lucey says. “Even if that means a few dollars here and there, that can really add up over time.”

Lucey and Gonzalez are fans of these coupon sites, apps and plug-ins.

  • Honey and Rakuten: Install one of these browser extensions to apply any current coupons to purchases you have in your virtual shopping cart.
  • Shopkick: Rack up reward points as you make purchases, using the credit card you link with the free app, then redeem these Shopkick points for gift cards from retailers like Starbucks, services like Uber, or even donations to charities like Feeding America.
  • Paribus: Scan your receipt and this free app will monitor your purchases and help you get money back from retailers if any items you bought go on sale within a certain window.

Don’t Forget to Sign Up for Email Offers

Oftentimes, you’ll score a discount code or other deal after signing up for a retailer's email newsletter. It can also pay off to follow your favorite shops on social media since some retailers advertise sales there. You may even get early access or special discount codes by being a loyalist, Lucey says. 

Do Clear Your Cookies or Shop Incognito

Some sites employ “dynamic pricing,” which means the site might rack up the price if they can tell you’re interested in a certain product based on the number of times you've checked it out. You might also score discounts if the site thinks you’re a first-time visitor, Gonzalez says, so clear your cookies or open a new incognito window in your browser before shopping.

Don’t Shop Using Your Usual Bank Account

Once you determine your budget, create a dedicated savings account for holiday shopping, Lucey suggests. “Dedicating an account to a specific purpose will make it easier to see how it’s growing over time, and will help you avoid accidentally spending that money on something else,” she says. 

Once you’ve followed all of these online holiday shopping dos and don’ts, it’s time to make it official and make the purchase. If you have one, Gonzalez recommends doing so with a credit card that offers reward points to keep the budget wins and card benefits going into the new year.

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