Overcoming Unintentional Shopping

Last year on Black Friday, I made this agreement with myself that I was going to utterly ignore it (aside from a bit of investigating that I felt I needed to do for an article or two that I was writing). I wasn’t going to buy anything. I wasn’t going to go out shopping. Rather, I was going to spend the day playing some games with my kids, working on a homemade gift for the holidays, and getting some reading in.

At three different times during the day, I found myself looking at Black Friday sales. I actually took note of it at the time, thinking it would make for an interesting post someday.

So, how did that happen?

The first time, I was reading social media and I noticed that a person I knew was posting about an item on deep discount, and I clicked through to check it out. I didn’t buy anything.

The second time, a friend texted me about three separate items that he thought I might be interested in. I clicked through the links without a second thought. I didn’t buy anything.

The third time, my wife and I were quietly talking about Christmas gifts for people and she started looking for a few items on her phone, with me looking over her shoulder. I believe my wife bought one item as a gift.

This isn’t to say that my goal was some kind of failure. During the day, I never went directly to seek out sales on anything, online or off. Rather, I came to those sales through secondary influences: social media, a friend sharing things he thought I’d like, my wife wanting to find good holiday gifts for our kids.

Social media got me to a Black Friday sale, even though I wasn’t intending to shop.

A friend got me to a Black Friday sale, even though I wasn’t intending to shop.

My wife did the same.

In each of those cases, I didn’t have any intent to do any shopping. I sat down to see what a few distant friends were up to on Thanksgiving and the day after, and yet that got rerouted into a shopping experience. I read a message from a friend, and that got routed into a shopping experience. Even sitting down with my wife on the couch for a bit, as innocuous as that was, got routed into a shopping experience.

The point is this: we’re often led in subtle and unintentional ways to situations where we can spend money on things we might want, and it happens more often than we realize. I didn’t really leave the house all day long last year aside from going on a rural walk, and I never picked up a device once with the intent of shopping online, but I wound up checking out at least three different retailers.

And, truth be told, I probably would have forgotten those visits had I not made note of them, and there’s a good chance I would have made at least one purchase if I wasn’t being extra aware of my choice to avoid Black Friday entirely.

They would have been forgotten visits and possibly forgotten purchases.

Here’s the take-home message from this: we’re often subtly influenced to buy, particularly in online settings, even when we don’t really intend to be shopping, and often those encounters are forgotten quickly thereafter, even if we make a small purchase. We’re tempted by products to the point that we’re actually in the store considering a purchase — and sometimes we even make a purchase – when we’re not planning to do so at all, and we often forget about it shortly thereafter.

What’s the harm in that? We’re often left with a little remnant of the temptation that took us there in the first place. We thought enough about the item to take action, to visit that online shop or to step into that convenience store, and even if we didn’t make a purchase, that doesn’t change the fact that we were tempted into going there.

Even if we have the best of intentions, we can still find ourselves falling into unintentional shopping, tempted into spending money when we’re not even really thinking about it. It’s easy to see how we can be tempted into it online, but it can happen when we’re anywhere.

We’re strolling by a vending machine and feel a bit thirsty so we slip a couple of dollars in the machine.

We have to stop for gas and need to go to the bathroom, but then we spy something when we’re in the convenience store and swipe our card to get it.

We’re going somewhere with a friend but they need to make a “quick stop” for something.

Those are instances of unintentional shopping, and whenever you’re shopping, particularly without any intention at all, there’s a chance that you’re spending money on something that you really don’t need or even want at all.

The easiest thing to do to avoid this is to simply avoid all instances of unintentional shopping, but that’s a lot easier said than done. If you’re on a road trip and you stop for gas, it’s pretty silly to not go into the gas station to use the bathroom because of a chance that you might buy something. It’s pretty nonsensical to never read a message from a friend because they might be sending you a link to an online store.

So, what can you do instead?

First, be aware of it. If you’re not intending to shop for anything right now, then that means if you go into a shop, it’s pretty silly to buy anything, even if it looks cool. That item you just saw would have never been on your radar at all if you hadn’t just unintentionally went shopping, so it’s completely unnecessary to buy it.

For me, I try to keep the purpose of what I’m doing in mind. If I’m browsing social media, I’m trying to keep up with some friends, not buy something. If I’m reading a text, I’m communicating with a friend, not buying something. If I’m going into a convenience store, I’m using the bathroom, not buying something. My intent is not to buy, so I’m not going to buy.

Second, just don’t click through. If someone sends you a link to an online store, don’t click through. If you see a link to an online store on social media, don’t click through. There’s no worthwhile reason to do so. Just keep moving along.

It’s actually a pretty useful habit to build. If you see a link on social media and it’s not truly important to you in any way, just don’t click it. The same is true if a friend sends you a link or if you get a link in your email. Just. Don’t. Click.

Third, don’t take the means to easily spend money with you. If you aren’t going with the intent to spend, don’t take money with you. Don’t take credit cards with you. Leave that stuff at home in a secure place.

That way, if you do find yourself unintentionally shopping, you don’t have the means with which to buy anything anyway, so it becomes a moot point.

Fourth, pare down your social media. Stop following companies and retailers. Stop following “influencers.” Instead, stick just to people you know well. Anything beyond that circle is just throwing junk at you anyway.

Over the last year or two, I’ve eliminated all but two social media platforms from my non-professional life and the things I’m following on there have been drastically cut back. This has resulted in a big cutback in terms of the time I spend on social media and certainly the number of links of all kinds I’ve clicked through and products I’ve been exposed to.

Finally, don’t share e-commerce links yourself. Don’t tell friends about big sales. Don’t share the latest products. Doing so encourages your friends to share things like that back with you.

The only time you should share things to buy with people is if they’re requesting it. Otherwise, keep those product suggestions to yourself. This gradually and subtly nudges your friends to do the same, meaning there are less opportunities for you to unintentionally shop online.

Unintentional shopping brings almost no value into your life while bringing a hefty financial cost along for the ride. You can’t completely stop it, but it’s pretty easy to slow it to a crawl, and your wallet will thank you.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.