Scene: The mid-2000s, a college dorm room.
My sister: I’m thinking about buying my school books from something called Amazon? Have you heard of it?
Me: No. Is it online?
My sister: Yeah.
Me: Pssht. Sounds sketchy. I wouldn’t.
Fast-forward more than a decade and I’ve done almost all of my Christmas shopping for the past 2 years completely online, not to mention other shopping “trips” throughout the year. (What do big sisters know anyway? Apparently, not too much.)
It’s amazing how much life has changed and how much and how quickly we’ve all embraced shopping online.
Online shopping, for as easy and magical as it is, can also create huge financial problems if you’re not taking care and watching what you’re spending.
It’s just a little too easy, too magical, and too on-demand. There are also many ways to save money and curb your budget when shopping online too — from coupon codes to loyalty programs to tools to help comparison shop.
Ready to stay on-budget while shopping online, especially during the upcoming holiday season? Here are 12 strategies to help you do just that:
1. Make a List
You make a list for the grocery store to keep you on target; do the same thing when you’re shopping online. Write it out by hand and have it next to your computer as you shop. Cross off the items when you purchase them.
2. Create a Clear Budget
When you make that list, know how much you are able to spend on it too. When you make each purchase, write down the amount of money you spent and deduct it from your total budget.
3. Use Loyalty Programs
Some businesses’ loyalty or shopper rewards programs carry over into the online world too. Make sure that you know which ones do and how to check out so that your discount works or you earn points toward your purchase.
4. Buy on Credit
If you own a cash back credit card, use it instead of PayPal or another credit card to make your purchases. You’re essentially earning money back as a rebate later. Just make sure that you can pay off your credit card’s balance if you do use it.
5. Check Amazon
Besides their often lower prices, Amazon has rotating Deals of the Day and Gold Box Deals. If you’re looking to buy something particularly expensive, know exactly what you want and then keep your eyes open. One Christmas, I bought my husband and father Ken Burns documentary box sets for 60% off when they were highlighted by Amazon. Totally worth it.
6. Use Ebates
Ebates is a nifty website that offers cash back through certain vendors. You simply create an account, visit the vendor you want through Ebates and complete the transaction. It’s not a scam and it really does work. Over the last few years, Ebates has refunded me more than $400. They’ll send it through the mail or to your PayPal. You can buy Amazon products through Ebates and stack coupons or use loyalty cards while using Ebates too.
7. Comparison Shop with a Click
Use Google’s comparison shopper, Froogle, to see where the best online prices are. (Hint: it’s not always Amazon!)
8. Compare In-Store and Online Specials
Often, different specials at the same store or of the same product will run in-store and online. Be smart and check out what they are. Remember to factor in potential shipping fees or taxes that might change the price too.
9. Look for Return and Exchange Policies
Restocking fees? Ditch that. You don’t need that negativity in your life.
If you’re really looking to save money and keep your budget on track, you want to ensure that your gift recipients will be able to return, exchange or refund with the fewest strings attached. Check out the terms and conditions of the sale before you buy. (Looking for an awesome policy? L.L. Bean will honor any exchange or refund at any time without a receipt for any reason.)
10. Shop Small Businesses
You know who could use your cash? A small business…specifically, a small military-connected business. As the days to Christmas approach, check your favorite military spouse- and veteran-owned businesses and see if they’re offering sales or discounts.
Even if they aren’t, consider using those businesses instead of big-box companies, especially if they offer items similar to those you’re shopping for.
11. Don’t Buy…Right Away
I am a really finicky shopper. I’ll place items in my cart and then not have the guts to click “buy” for a loooooong time.
Being slow at pulling the trigger pays off, sometimes, it turns out when shopping online.
Often, after metaphorically walking away from my shopping cart, I’ll find a coupon in my inbox trying to entice me to buy. Usually these coupons are only 10 to 15% off, but hey, it adds up!
12. Google the Product or Store
Before you click “buy,” make sure that you’ve Googled the store or the product you’re purchasing to find coupon codes to use. In the past, I’ve saved major money through this method. You might not turn up anything…or you might turn up a code that saves you quite a bit. Spend the extra few seconds and check.