Why It’s So Easy to Spend Too Much Online

Ever noticed how easy it is to spend money online? I know I stop and think if I’m buying something in a store – is this book really worth $20 to me? – but if I’m buying an ebook or shopping on Amazon, I’m much more likely to spend the money without a second thought.

With so many outlet stores and auction sites online, and with services like PayPal and WorldPay to help tiny companies sell their products to us, it’s possible to buy almost anything you want with a few clicks of the mouse.

And it’s very easy to end up spending too much: letting the dollars slip away until you’re left with a nasty shock at the end of the month.
Why does it happen? These are my thoughts; feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.

The (False) Real/Virtual Distinction

We tend to think of the internet as a special “virtual” space which is somehow separate from the rest of our lives. We talk about the “virtual world” verses the “real world” – as though our actions online don’t impact our offline lives.

The reality is, of course, that spending $100 through PayPal has just the same effect on your bank balance as taking out $100 from an ATM and spending it in a store. Although PayPal money might feel virtual, it’s very real.

When you’re browsing on eBay or Amazon, it’s worth pausing to think about the very real money which you’re spending; ask yourself whether what you’re buying really is worth that to you.

Merging of Activities

As well as this sense of disconnection from our money, we’re also particularly prone to spending money when we’re online because there’s very little distinction or barrier between different activities.

In the physical world, you might be chatting to friends over a coffee when someone mentions a great book they’ve been reading. You’d make a mental note of it, and perhaps check it out a few days later when you next pass a bookstore.

Online, you might be hanging out on Twitter when someone tweets about a great book they’re reading and adds a link to Amazon. It takes a second to click on that link and bring up the Amazon page, and no more than a minute to pop the book in your shopping basket and pay for it.

See what I mean? In the first case, you might well lose interest in the book or forget all about it – perhaps it wasn’t really that interesting to you after all. But online, you can very easily click links without any conscious thought – and it’s a tiny step from there to buying the product.

Convenience and Availability

Linked to this merging of activities, the online world offers a huge amount of convenience.

Let’s say you’re enjoying a glass of wine after dinner. It’s 10pm. You’re thinking about a new album which a colleague recommended. It’s very easy to pop online and pay to download the album: your impulse leads to you buying something that, perhaps, was more of a whim than a real desire.

Without the internet, you might jot down a note to buy that CD later – but the shop wouldn’t be open at 10pm and you couldn’t go out and buy it straight away. Plus, if the album was an obscure one, it might take considerable effort to track it down … whereas online, stores like Amazon and Play.com can stock a huge range of products.


If you find yourself spending more than you want to online – with a stack of unread books, unwatched DVDs and unworn clothes to show for it – then try some of these tips:

  • Ban yourself from certain sites. (“Just browsing” on eBay generally isn’t a good idea.) You could even block those sites in your browser, for moments when willpower is low…
  • Keep a spending log. If you’re writing down everything you spend, you’ll be a lot more aware of it – and more self-controlled.
  • Set yourself a budget for entertainment-related spending, and keep a running total of what you’ve spent each month. If you’re currently spending a lot, try cutting back gradually.
  • Break the click-click-click habit. If you find yourself buying a new book every time you read a review, start putting those books into a wishlist or bookmarking them for future consideration. That way, you’ll have time to decide if you really want them.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this: do you find yourself spending money more easily online than offline? If so, why? And what do you do to curb your impulses?

(Image by Flickr user Ed Yourdon)

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2 Responses to “ Why It’s So Easy to Spend Too Much Online ”

  1. Leslie A Joy says:

    I definitely end up spending more online. A big part of the problem for me is how much cheaper things are online. I’ll make a list of books and check them out in a bookstore first, but most of the time what happens is I end up saying “Yea, I REALLY want this book, but I’m not 35 bucks for it.” Then I go home, see the same book on Amazon, and it’s $22. Instead of stopping to think that I have the $22, my reaction is “It’s the book I wanted! For $22 dollars instead of $35! Score! *add to cart.

    I’ve been trying to work on some ways around that, and the fact that I nearly completed one list of books and ebooks to buy definitely helps. It’s much harder to justify buying books when you have 20 sitting there to read and only 2 left to buy on your list.

  2. [...] published in two Jun 28, 2010 blogs" "Where to Write Out of the House," and "Why It’s So Easy to Spend Too Much Online." And it was published in a Jun 29, 2010 blog titled "What Women Want … [...]

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