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By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, [email protected]

According to a 2021 Harris Poll survey conducted for the American Institute of CPAs, two in 5 Americans (41%) said the ability to shop online makes it harder to stick to a monthly budget. The survey also found that more than half of Americans (52%) say buying things when they want, without thinking too much about how much they cost, makes them feel good and 56% increased their online shopping since the start of COVID-19.

Personal Financial Managers may hold briefings about online shopping or get requests for tips related to saving money and/or online shopping security. Below are six online shopping tips to share with military families:

Online Shopping Tips

  1. Shop With a List– Just like shopping for groceries, make a list of items that you need and the amount that you expect to spend for each item. If you are prone to making impulse purchases online, budget for them in advance (e.g., miscellaneous items, $15). Stick to the list and use it as a spending “guardrail.”
  2. Avoid Boredom Shopping– Resist the urge to pick up a smartphone or iPad and start “surfing” retailer websites as a way to pass away time. Many people do this and end up making unplanned purchases. Look for something else to do when you are bored such as taking a walk, watching a TED talk, or calling a friend.
  3. Set a Cooling-Off Limit– An online purchase only counts if you check out items in your “cart” with a credit card or other form of payment. Set a dollar limit (e.g., $100) above which you delay checking out to think about a purchase. It is also okay to abandon your cart, although you may get reminder e-mails.
  4. Read the Fine Print- Things to look for include an online retailer’s privacy terms, return policy, shipping costs or other fees, warranties, and sales taxes. Ideally, compare prices and terms from at least three retailers (online and brick and mortar) to get good deals. Ten minutes of research could save hundreds of dollars.
  5. Keep Records of Transactions– Print out receipts with confirmation numbers and the time and date of purchases. This will create a paper trail in case anything goes wrong with online purchases (e.g., shipping delays or errors, shoddy or damaged merchandise, and bill paying snafus).
  6. Use a Credit Card- Low-limit secondary credit cards (versus debit cards or gift cards) are the best way to pay for online purchases. Laws exist to minimize a consumer’s liability for fraudulent credit card charges or shoddy or damaged merchandise. These protections typically do not exist for other forms of retail payment.

Online Security Tips

  • Beware of Dark Patterns- Dark patterns are techniques used by websites to trick online shoppers into making unplanned choices (e.g., inadvertently signing up for recurring service or paying unexpected handling fees or delivery charges), typically during the “cart checkout” process. They often occur through the use of checkboxes or “opt-out” buttons. Review online sales totals very carefully before checking out.
  • Look for Security Features- Indicators of a safe place to shop include “HTTPS” preceding a web address (“s” means it is a secure, encrypted website) and a closed padlock icon. Beware of e-mails from “sellers” that request personal information to “confirm” a purchase. Never click on links embedded in these e-mails.
  • Look for Red Flags- Examples include deals that seem too good to be true, typos and poor grammar, blurred logos, and lack of a seller’s contact information. Also, beware of fake web addresses that are one character off from correct addresses for reputable sellers and keep computer anti-virus software up to date.

For further information, review the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publication, Online Shopping.