Online shopping allows for price comparison, convenience, and variety. But it’s especially easy to impulse spend. I’d like to optimize online spending for frugality and simplicity.
The online shopping cycle generally looks like this: You need or want something→ Find the right product→Shop→ Buy. Let’s break down each step.
Identifying what you need
In the spirit of my previous post on organization and simplification, let’s err on the side of simplicity with our belongings. This increases overall life satisfaction and decreases your cognitive load. Develop a system resistant to impulse. Focus on deriving lasting practical value from purchases.
Eliminate the near occasion of impulse buys: Download UBlock. This eliminates excessive advertisements. Cutting impulses at their source is the best method to avoid them. Even with an Adblocker like UBlock, you’ll still get impulses to buy things.
Time conquers impulse
A potent method for eliminating impulse online purchases is to label impulse as such and wait for it to pass. Recognizing your buying impulse will help you gain emotional distance from it. For ideas that are not fleeting impulses, have a rule written down that will govern your buying in all situations. Make it easily accessible. I like to say that before I buy anything online, it must have been written on a list through at least one night’s sleep. I then judge it by the rules: (1) Will I use it fairly regularly? (2) I am getting the best price? (3) Will it bring either a commensurate amount of pleasure or utility for its cost? I do believe that this contemplation helps separate buying habits from emotions. This is key to saving money.
Your product search has probably been repeated thousands of times. It likely has been explicitly answered online. Tap into this. Use Google to search using the methods I outlined here. Look for heavily upvoted posts on Reddit, Quora, and Stack Exchange mentioning the questions relevant to your product search.
Example Search Questions: Will these headlights fit on my car? What types of pants go best will a madras shirt? What headphones are best for sprinting in the rain?
My good friend Ian had a splendid idea a few years ago to search for alternative products by typing in “vs” after a product name and allowing Google to make suggestions. Great.
Amazon as a research tool
Browse through the 3 and 4-star reviews on Amazon. All the other reviews on Amazon are either fake or too heavily biased. Search for “reviews” here if you want an explanation for this. Before you buy anything, identify what is is exactly you need and if there is anything out there that does this. Use Amazon’s best sellers in each category coupled with average ratings to get an idea of the overall value of that product.
Now the fun part: shopping. Where you search is going to depend on what you’re looking for…
For cars, use autotempest.com to get a gauge of local pricing. For heavy craigslist-type items, use searchtempest.com to track an item’s value across every Craigslist in the U.S. For apartments see this post. Focus on Craiglist, Pad Mapper, and Zillow. Use Google to find offline housing opportunities. Think about nearby university housing classifieds’ sites or Facebook groups of like-minded individuals who may be looking to rent or sell their place. Consider soliciting friends and family. They all want you to thrive and find a great place.
For other items, use Ebay Completed listings (an option on Ebays left-hand search bar) to see what others paid for the item you’re looking for. Use Amazon’s recommended items on product pages along with their “Customers ended up buying this.” Also, look for best-rated items in your product’s category. Oftentimes you’ll find a substitute product that’s better than the one you’re looking for. On Ebay, think about various ways your product may be categorized or named. Oftentimes lazy sellers won’t register all the details of a product, so you may have to rely on keywords rather than the left-bar search menu for finding the best deals.
If there’s a category of product you’re into, find forums or email alerts that crowdsource deal finding for that type of product. For instance, if I’m looking for deals on clothes, I’ll keep posted on reddit.com/r/frugalmalefashion. Other folks may benefit from SlickDeals or FatWallet.
If you’re buying non-Ebay/Amazon, check Google for discount codes. They can often be found through Retailmenot.com. For example, I saved an easy $10 on a foodie event in Philly last month with an Amtrak.com referral code that was publicly listed online.
The easiest purchase mode online is definitely Amazon Prime. Free and fast shipping to anywhere in the US. At $99/year, if you buy more than 15 items from them per year I’d say it’s worthwhile. Be sure you’re only buying from sites that start with https:. This indicates they have a secured connection. Buy with a cash-back credit card. My Capital One gets me 1.5% back on everything I buy. Don’t let that incentivize you to spend more, though. You still have to pay for the other 98.5%.
Note that many retailers offer a generous return policy that allows us all to treat our homes like dressing rooms. Take advantage of flexible return policies to find the right size clothing and test out electronics. Just be sure you read the fine print.
With a patient attitude, a diligent eye, and a few of these tips, you’ll save hundreds of dollars per year online.