The internet allows shoppers to compare prices, find discount offers and purchase desired goods without ever leaving their homes. Thanks to these and other benefits, online retail sales have been steadily increasing for the past ten years and growing at a much faster rate than total retail sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Further, more Americans shopped online than in stores this year over the long Thanksgiving weekend, according to the National Retail Federation.
The internet lets shoppers buy practically anything with the click of a button on a computer or swipe of the finger on a mobile device — but that makes it too easy to spend money as a result.
"Online shopping with deals, coupons and always-open stores, has created an environment where we have naturally turned into a generation of spenders," said Tim Ahlenius, director of experience marketing for website development company Americaneagle.com.
Here are 11 ways the internet has made it easier for consumers to spend.
1. It Allows You to Shop Any Time
As Ahlenius noted, online stores are always open. As a result, if a busy work or home life prevents you from getting to brick-and-mortar stores during the day, you can always log onto your computer at night to buy what you want.
"Shopping is much more convenient than it used to be," said Tom Caporaso, CEO of Clarus Commerce, a leader in e-commerce and subscription commerce solutions.
The research seems to back up his claim. In fact, a growing percentage of consumers — 46 percent in 2015 versus 42 percent in 2014 — said they buy online rather than in stores because they can shop 24/7, according to a report by consulting firm PwC.
To avoid spending too much time online shopping, it's important to pay attention to how often you're actually browsing the Web. The goal is to limit your shopping to those times when you actually need something.
2. It Allows You to Shop Anywhere
Thanks to mobile devices, online consumers no longer require computer access in order to shop online. With smartphones or tablets, individuals can make purchases from anywhere with wireless service or Wi-Fi access, and a growing number of consumers are taking advantage of that ability. For example, 36 percent of online sales on Black Friday 2015 came from mobile devices, versus just over 3 percent in 2010, according to IBM Watson Trend Hub.
"Well-designed mobile apps make it easier to spend," Caporaso said. "They give you all of the information you might want or need to evaluate a product, all in one place and, depending on the app, wherever you may be. If you decide you want the item, you just click the button, and you're done."
If downloading retailers' mobile apps has led to an increase in your spending, consider deleting those apps to eliminate the temptation and protect your wallet.
3. It Offers Access to Thousands of Retailers
Mall of America has more than 500 stores. Conversely, there are more than 650,000 stores generating revenue online, according to InternetRetailer.com. In short, the internet gives shoppers access to 1,000 times the number of places to spend their money than even the biggest mall in the U.S.
"The internet has created a generation of spenders by bringing shopping opportunities to consumers' fingertips," said consumer expert Andrea Woroch.
Now, you don't have to live in a major metropolitan area or even near a shopping center to buy whatever you want. If the temptation to shop online is too great, avoid browsing the Web during your free time and strive to make purchases in person.
4. It Makes It Easy to Find Deals
The abundance of coupon and deal sites makes it easy to find the best bargains online and score promotional codes for discounts. In fact, the top reason consumers say they shop online rather than in stores is that they can get better deals, according to the PwC report.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of deals means that many people buy items just because they're on sale. As a result, efforts to save money can backfire in the long run. Even if you think you're getting better deals shopping online, determine whether you're actually attracted to the product or just the sale price.
5. It Can Cause You to Spend More Than You Would in Stores
Shopping online can mean paying extra to have your purchases shipped. As a result, consumers are often motivated by free shipping offers — even if it means spending more to avoid paying for shipping.
"Some of the higher spending amounts are due to the purchase thresholds that retailers sometimes set for purchases to qualify for free delivery," Caporaso said.
Not only will online shoppers put more items in their virtual shopping baskets to meet free shipping thresholds, but they might also pay for subscription services — such as Amazon Prime at $99 a year and FreeShipping.com at $12.97 a month — in order to receive free shipping and rebates on online purchases.
"Studies show subscribers spend more money online compared to non-subscribers," said Kendal Perez, a shopping expert with Coupon Sherpa. "That's because we want to get our money's worth."
Consumers should be aware that most online retailers offer free shipping at some point during the year, so try to schedule purchases around these times — especially during holiday weekends such as Presidents' Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day, said Perez. You can also find codes for free shipping at any time of the year on sites such as Freeshipping.org.
6. It Can Lead to Impulse Purchases
Just like stores put impulse-buy items near the checkout counter, online retailers often suggest additional products shoppers should add to their carts or email customers recommendations based on past purchases, according to CNBC.
"The internet makes it easier than ever to research products and find the best prices, making consumers more informed," said Benjamin K. Glaser, features editor with deal and coupon site DealNews.com. "However, it does also increase the chances of making impulse purchases and overspending, as consumers are now constantly just a click away from major expenditures."
To reduce the likelihood of making impulse buys online, Perez advised consumers to avoid saving payment information on retailers' sites to simplify the purchasing process.
"Often, retrieving our credit cards from our wallets or purses is enough to get us to rethink whatever impulse buy we're about to make," she said.
7. It Reduces the Feeling of Spending Physical Money
You can't pay with cash when you shop online, a fact that might change your mindset about spending.
"When you think about the last time you had to pay cash for something over $50, you typically [had] a moment of hesitation," Ahlenius said. "When it's over a hundred dollars, even more thoughts race through your mind. Online shopping has now removed that from the shopping experience and causes people to spend even more without the hesitation."
To keep tabs on your spending, Glaser suggests taking advantage of free budgeting apps and websites that can link to your bank and credit card accounts. You will receive notifications about the status of your accounts to help make the extent of your online spending apparent.
8. It Creates a Sense of Urgency
Before the internet, advertising with pleas to "call now" for special offers was limited to late-night infomercials, Perez said. Now, shoppers are being bombarded with these messages regularly.
"Whether it's ads in our social feeds, retailer newsletters in our inboxes or pop-ups on websites and in mobile applications, we're constantly told that it's our 'last chance' to get a great deal on something," she said.
To avoid feeling the pressure to spend, Perez recommends installing AdBlock on your browser and unsubscribing from retailer newsletters and alerts from daily deal sites. When there's something you actually want to buy, look for coupon codes and promotions at sites such as CouponSherpa.com, DealNews.com and Offers.com.
9. It Offers Constant Reminders to Buy
If you've ever searched for a product online, you've likely seen ads for that item showing up on other sites you visit. You can thank cookies for those constant reminders to buy a particular item.
"Cookies are digital trails you create on the internet with your browsing activity, and data miners offer these treats to websites for targeted advertising," Perez said.
To avoid being tempted by these ads, Perez advises consumers to disable their cookies and browse for products in private with incognito mode.
10. It Makes Spending a Social Event
It's hard to be social — on social media, that is — without being bombarded by ads and prompts to spend. Often, though, consumers are being introduced to brands and retailers because their friends are promoting them or sharing their experiences on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, nearly 30 percent of the consumers surveyed by PwC said they've discovered brands or developed interest in them as a result of social media.
"Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the various other social media sites offer retailers additional channels to reach their desired audiences — and more ways for their customers to spread the word about their products and promotions among their friends," Caporaso said.
11. It Can Make You Want to Keep Up With Others
Social media can also play a role in people's desires to keep up with the Joneses. According to Woroch, you might be influenced by what you see on social media "to take an expensive trip you can't really afford or throw an elaborate party for your 1-year-old to keep up with what everyone else is posting, so you feel like you're living up to what has become the standard."
To avoid developing bad money habits, it's important not to let the spending habits of others affect your own. And you never know: Behind all those pricey purchases people are posting on Facebook might be a mountain of debt.
Although the internet can help consumers save money by allowing them to compare prices, research products and find the best deals, it has also created a bigger temptation to spend. As you shop online, be aware of all the ways you might be spending more than necessary and take steps to avoid breaking your budget and hurting your financial welfare.