I recently had to advise a couple on an issue that I hadn’t faced before: out-of-control Amazon spending. This is a relatively new phenomenon in our culture. It wasn’t very many years ago that buying products off the internet was a new concept. In the early 2000s, it felt very risky and innovative to buy products online; in 2018, consumers no longer even make a distinction between buying online and buying in stores. Amazon is the biggest, showiest example, but the reality is that online shopping is part of our new normal in nearly every segment of retail sales.
Now that it’s not only an accepted method of commerce, but often preferred (by people who are either really busy or don’t like to get out of their pajamas), it’s becoming far more common to see people overspending on their internet shopping. I know I’ve seen those slideshows where people post their best drunken Amazon purchase. Yes, they’re hilarious, but I still cringe at idea of shopping with basically no inhibitions or thought to cost. Before online shopping, we weren’t staggering into Wal-Mart or Target at 2 am after a night of drinking with our wallets wide open.
There’s a reason Jeff Bezos is a gazillionaire. He’s perfected making it super easy for us to buy anything we want with literally one click of the mouse, and he’s convinced us that we should pay $129 every year for the right to have “free” two-day shipping.
In my experience in talking with clients and friends, it seems that the most mindless and excessive internet shopping is really centered around Amazon, and, more specifically, is a direct result of having a Prime membership. Sure, some people use their Prime membership in a perfectly responsible way, but it’s not uncommon for people to be a little lax about paying attention to how much they’re spending, and then end up surprised when they get their credit card bills. I know I’ve thrown things into my cart and literally thought to myself “I won’t even notice this on my credit card statement.” That’s not a sustainable way to manage your money, and I work hard to avoid that mindset.
My first suggestion to someone struggling to control their Amazon spending would be to get rid of Amazon Prime so that they’d have to think a little harder before mindlessly buying everything on their screen. I do shop at Amazon (without a Prime subscription anymore) and never pay for shipping myself; I just make sure to wait till my order is at least $25 and I get genuinely free shipping – I just have to wait 4-5 days for my package. I can live with that. I also now check other sites before automatically ordering from Amazon – I’ve found that sometimes I can buy the same product elsewhere for a cheaper price, even factoring in any shipping costs.
However, I can understand that some people might resist the idea of cancelling their Prime membership, as you could be a Prime member for reasons other than the 2-day shipping: you might use Prime Video instead of cable or Netflix, for example. In that case, I’d set up some rules for myself. The one that I think is the most effective and makes the most sense is this: if you really need something, like toilet paper or dog food, ask yourself the question:
Would I be willing to physically go out to a store to buy this item?
If the answer is yes, order ONLY that item. No add-ons. If there are other things you might have thrown in your cart, put them instead on your wish list, and check in once a week to see if that item seems quite as necessary five days later.
The best test for whether you might want to take steps to curb your Amazon habit is to pull up your order history for the past few years – or all the way back to 2004, which seems to be the earliest year you can look up. If you’re scared to look, that might indicate you have a problem. I actually found it fascinating to go through my own order history, and it reflects events in my own life (meaning a huge spike in orders from 2010 through 2014, when I had infant (and then toddler) twins and did nearly all of my holiday shopping online). I noticed that my orders have tended to be nearly all gifts, or items that I can’t find locally.
Just taking a step to think before you place an order, whether on Amazon or elsewhere, can make a huge difference in how much you spend. People tend to spend much less when they pay attention to their spending, or are being held accountable in some way, like they’re tracking their expenses. I’d love to hear your own experiences with online shopping, and whether you’ve successfully used some tricks to manage your spending.