11 Costly Online Shopping Mistakes to Steer Clear of This Season

A woman looks at holiday receipts while feeling stressed out sitting in front of a Christmas tree.
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There’s no need to wait in long lines at crowded stores to snag the perfect holiday gifts at the best prices. All kinds of great deals can be found online.

However, online shopping comes with its own perils when you’re trying to stick to a budget. Buying virtually makes it easy to buy a cartload of stuff in a few simple clicks — without really paying attention to the real-life dollars you’re spending.

Before you hit that “buy now” button, check out how to avoid making these 11 common online shopping fails.

11 Online Shopping Mistakes to Avoid This Holiday Season

As you browse online for your holiday finds, avoid these pitfalls to keep yourself from spending a ho-ho-whole lotta money. We’ve gathered some of the worst online shopping fails to help you avoid the most expensive blunders. They are:

  • Getting fooled by terrible discounts.
  • Spending more just to get “free shipping.”
  • Not abandoning your cart.
  • Falling for expensive promoted products.
  • Not shopping in incognito mode.
  • Shopping while intoxicated, tired or hungry.
  • Not doing your research.
  • Not checking the return policy.
  • Not using a cash back program.
  • Not trying it on for size.
  • Not having a budget.

1. Getting Fooled by Terrible Discounts

When is a Black Friday sale not really a sale? When the discounts aren’t any better than the ones you normally receive.

For example, if you can typically find your favorite brand of shoes for $50 — even though the “suggested retail price” is $90 — consider $50 the benchmark. So if a retailer advertises the shoes for 50% off, but the discount is off the regular suggested retail price of $90, it won’t be much of a deal because you’re only saving $5 off of what you’d normally pay.

Let it be a lesson that just because an item is listed on the sale page of a website doesn’t mean something is worth your money.

2. Spending More to Get “Free” Shipping

We’ve all been there. You know you can get free shipping if your order totals more than $50, but your cart comes to $48.50.

Maybe you can find something for $1.50 to meet the minimum… or maybe you’ll just toss in that $10 item you don’t really need but lets you get the free shipping.

Rather than sorting the sale section from low to high, step away from the virtual cart and rethink your original purchase.

Would it be worth paying to have that original item shipped and sticking to your original budget? Or consider other shipping options the retailer offers. Could you use a ship-to-store option that lets you save on shipping and drive up to get the goods?

Check out these 35 stores that offer free shipping.

3. Not Abandoning Your Cart

Yeah, it might be bad form to leave a cart full of stuff in a brick-and-mortar store, but do it online, and you could score a better deal. This is one of the advantages of ordering stuff online — you can shop like no one’s watching. Bonus: No annoying security tags.

Some retail sites will trigger an email coupon when you leave items in your cart and close your browser. Leave your cart for a few hours (or a day) and you could receive an email saying, “Did you forget something? Here, have a discount!”

If you don’t need to place the order immediately, a short period of indecision can help you get a better deal.

4. Falling for Expensive Promoted Products

Websites like Amazon, Etsy and eBay know that consumers want convenience — and are easily distracted by the first item they see in search results. So they place advertised products in the search results, even if you choose to sort by price from lowest to highest.

Before you click on that attractive-looking item, thinking it’s in your price range, double-check for an indicator that it’s a promoted product. And don’t forget to scroll through the reviews and read more comments. If a person ordered the same product and felt cheated, they’ll probably point you toward a better value.

5. Not Shopping in Incognito Mode

Did you know some online shopping sites will show higher prices depending on your location, the time of day you’re shopping and whether you’ve checked out the item on the site earlier?

Shop in your browser’s private mode to avoid retailers switching up prices to try to get you to buy now. And if you accidentally clicked past that special offer pop-up window or redeemed it and then lost the code, clear your browser history and cache. Go back to the website and the same pop-up offer should reload for you as if you’re a brand-new visitor to the site.

6. Shopping While Intoxicated, Tired or Hungry

No. Do not. Many an error occurred because of midnight browsing. Like that tank top your friend ordered that seemed hilarious at the time and now sits at the back of the closet.

That is how you end up with a dress two sizes smaller than what you normally wear, because you think you might be able to fit into it eventually. And it’s a final sale. Just don’t do it.

If you have the tendency to shop when you’ve been drinking or late at night as you try to cure your insomnia, do yourself a favor and protect your wallet from your worst shopping tendencies.

7. Not Doing Your Research

Never make an impulse buy based on the image of the item alone.

Did you read reviews for the product? (Bonus points if you peep user-uploaded photos.)

Did you check the specs on expensive electronics to make sure you’re getting a high-quality item? Or that it has the connectors you need for it to work with your current setup?

Did you check the clothing size chart? Or make sure those heavy-duty boots in your cart will fit?

If you can’t rattle off the reasons it’s worth buying that product right now, step away from your laptop. You’re not ready to buy.

8. Not Checking the Return Policy

A lot of online stores let you make returns, but some of them also make you jump through hoops before you can get your money back. Returning that novelty T-shirt Dad bought that your teen finds embarrassing? Sometimes it’s going to be more hassle than it’s worth.

Before you buy, check the fine print on the store’s return policy and find out how much it will deduct from your refund — for return shipping or restocking — if you send the item back.

These 15 retailers have the best return policies.

9. Not Using a Cash Back Program

If you’re not shopping online through a cash back portal, you’re missing out on free money.

Check out these Google Chrome extensions, like Rakuten, Acorns Earn or CNET Shopping. They automatically detect if there’s a rebate, cash back offer or deal for your purchase.

Bonus points if you shop with a cash back or rewards credit card.

10. Not Trying Things on for Size

One of the great disadvantages of ordering online is that you can’t really see, touch or try out the products. This is especially important for certain items like clothing, furniture and shoes. Instead of being forced to buy two shirts to try on, the internet has come up with clever ways around this online shopping dilemma.

Enter virtual dressing rooms and apps, where you can try on items to see how they look on your actual body instead of relying on a sizing chart. Other sites also offer a variety of options such as Amazon’s AR room decorator for ensuring your furniture will fit the space.

11. Not Having a Budget

Before, when you headed to the store, you may have had a list, or if you shopped with cash you’d know how much you had left to spend. It’s a lot easier for online shopping to get out of control since you can hop from site to site — and can do it any time.

Plus, online retailers purposely try to get you to spend more by suggesting similar products you might like based on what you’ve searched for.

If you set aside an hour before you start your holiday shopping to review your numbers and create a holiday budget, you’ll be able to make the holiday cheer (and more cash) last into the new year.

Lisa Rowan is a former writer at The Penny Hoarder. Senior writer Kaz Weida contributed to this post.