Stopping Online ‘Boredom’ Shopping

I’ve done it myself a few times.

You’re sitting at your computer, or maybe tapping around on your phone. You don’t have much to do at the moment – maybe you’re waiting for someone to get home, or waiting for your name to be called while you sit in the waiting room.

Whatever it is, you’re just idly checking out websites and, somehow, you find yourself at an e-commerce site. Maybe you followed a link there, or maybe you typed in a URL.

You’re there. You see something that you want, perhaps for a good price, but perhaps not.

Without even really thinking about it, you click “Buy” and, almost immediately, that item is on its way to you. The money has come out of your credit card or your PayPal account.

Then, you move on. Your family comes home or you get called by the receptionist or you decide to go to bed. Half of the time, you completely forget about the “bored” order until it arrives on your doorstep.

I call this “boredom” shopping. You’re online without any real purpose because you don’t have anything else to do at that moment. You find your way to an online shopping or auction site and discover some product you “must” have. You click “buy.” The money goes away. Soon, you have something arriving in your mailbox that you barely even want.

You have less money. You have another thing to jam in your closet. And, over time, it all adds up to a bunch of unwanted stuff and a much smaller checking account.

It’s a nasty habit, but it’s one that’s familiar to most people who spend much time online. Almost all of us have bought something when we were bored and looking at websites, something that we really wondered about later.

Such “boredom” shopping is almost always a financial mistake. If it’s repeated very often, it can turn into a big one.

Yet, in a world where internet access is so convenient and pervasive, how does one keep themselves from falling into this simple trap? The internet is always available to entertain us in a moment of boredom and it is so easy to find something we want and take action instantaneously at the click of a button.

Here are six strategies I use to keep this type of online “boredom” shopping at bay.

Keep other “worthwhile” entertainment on your phone. I always have a book to read on my phone. Always. I often check out books from the library to read on my phone using the Overdrive app, and sometimes I download free books from Project Gutenberg.

Another avenue is to simply have a fun game that you consistently enjoy playing on your phone, preferably one that isn’t full of in-app purchases. I enjoy playing implementations of board games on my phone, such as Ascension and Ticket to Ride, so I often play those during a few down moments where I feel like reading. I also read articles in apps separate from my web browser, such as Instapaper, which make it much harder to just jump straight to an e-commerce site.

The goal with these tactics is to ensure that when I’m using my phone for a quick source of entertainment, I stay out of my web browser, which is where most e-commerce on my phone occurs. In fact, I generally avoid any apps that easily allow me to make purchases. There’s plenty of entertainment elsewhere.

If you’re tempted to buy, add it to your wish list instead. Let’s say I do wind up on Amazon, eyeing something that I really want to buy. My hand is hovering over that “Buy it Now” button and I want to take action on this desire.

Rather than clicking the “Buy” button, instead simply click on the “Add to List” button and toss it on your wishlist. You’re left with the feeling that you did take action on that desire, but you didn’t actually buy it. Instead, you postponed any sort of decision on that item.

At some point in the future, you’ll find yourself reviewing that list. One or two items will still seem interesting and relevant, and those might make for worthwhile planned purchases. Most of the stuff? It’s junk. Quietly delete it from your wish list. Wonder why you ever thought you should own it in the first place.

Separate the “money = buying” connection. Many people assume that if they have money left in their account, then it must be okay to buy things. After all, that’s excess money just sitting there. With that mindset, “boredom” shopping becomes unproblematic, because you merely spent money that was just sitting there.

One effective way to do that is to put money to use in smart ways when you see it sitting in your account. Use it to make an extra payment on a debt or make an extra contribution to your Roth IRA. If that money is put to positive use, it’s not just sitting there providing a psychological temptation.

If your problem is credit card use, put your credit card on lockdown for a while. Cut up the card. Delete the number from your online accounts. Simply don’t use it. If you simply must make an online purchase, stick to a debit card and avoid credit entirely.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with buying things for yourself, but buying should be connected to life goals, not to boredom. Focus on purchases not as a way to alleviate boredom, but as a way to further an ambition that you’re already exploring.

In other words, view boredom as a trigger to try something new, not just to spend money. Boredom isn’t a state to be alleviated by the next pleasure that you can throw money at. Boredom is a state where your mind is crying out for something to apply itself to, and you don’t have to spend money to find that something. If you find yourself regularly bored, try a new hobby. Go to a meetup that seems interesting. Check out a book from the library on a subject that’s completely new to you. Engage your mind and body in activity rather than channeling that boredom into buying stuff.

Another useful strategy is to set personal goals for yourself and save shopping for the successful completion of those goals. This ties into solving the “boredom” problem. Simply engage yourself in something else you’re passionate about, set a goal for yourself within that passion, and give yourself permission to further that passion with a purchase if you achieve that goal.

For example, my wife and I have a list of camping equipment that we’d love to upgrade (sleeping bags and lanterns are at the top of the list, as our lantern is difficult to light and the adult sleeping bags are becoming really stained and worn and threadbare) and, more than once, I’ve added some of those items to an Amazon shopping cart in a moment of boredom. However, rather than simply buying them on the spur of the moment, we tie those purchases into investment of time in camping. If we spend a lot of time camping, then it actually makes sense to upgrade those items.

I’ve adopted the same approach with board games. I have decided I won’t drop a game (via trade) from my collection unless I’ve played it ten times or ten hours (whichever comes first), and I won’t add a new game until I’ve dropped one (there are a few minor exceptions to this rule, but that’s good enough).

In the end, the problem of boredom shopping is a lack of self-control. These techniques help teach some degree of self-control and enforce some restrictions so that you’re not faced with battling your own self-control, but in the end, it still comes down to you and your own self-control journey. Correcting a pattern of buying stuff in the moment out of boredom is a self-control challenge, one that, if successfully beaten, will help you with other self-control challenges in your life such as eating a better diet or exercising.

My final tip for you, then, is this: remind yourself that this is about self-control and do so regularly, with the idea in mind that self-control is hugely beneficial in almost every area of your life. Mastering boredom shopping is all about self-control. It’s a fairly narrow challenge, too, one that you can teach yourself to overcome and, in that process, realize that you have far more control over your thoughts and impulses than you ever would have believed.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.