My Current System For Avoiding Impulse Online Purchases
Make a list, sit on it, and see how many impulse buys you truly “need”
As anybody who has read any of my guides to buying from Aliexpress may have guessed, I’ve struggled, over the years, with making impulse purchases from the internet.
The problem about sites like Aliexpress (which, for those of not living in the US, are often our preferred online marketplaces): things tend to be pretty cheap. But to state a truism: many $5 purchases ultimately adds up to a large credit card bill.
The Real Person’s Guide To Buying From Aliexpress
A little over a year ago, I wrote an extensive blog for my personal site about my love of Aliexpress — Alibaba’s…
Moreover, I spent a large chunk of my free time this month organizing and cleaning up the apartment which I share with my wife.
Things had gotten out of hand — particularly after a recent trip to the US during which I bought some video accessories — and our shared interest in online ordering was undoubtedly a major driver of the clutter. After an excruciating month of organizing, labelling, and playing tetris to find a place for everything, I didn’t feel like having to go through that process again before our next move.
Final reason: I’m on a budgeting kick. To be more responsible about managing finances, I need to do a better job at knowing and planning for what I’m spending.
Figuring Out Why I Tend To Buy Things Online
When I did some soul-searching to try figure out why I was buying things online (perhaps the first step for many), I determined that a lot had to do with not trusting myself to remember the things I had previously researched. Impulsivity is a common feature of ADHD and I reckoned that this was one of the ways it was manifesting in my life.
It had nothing to do with actually wanting some of the things I had researched.
It was simply that I often wanted to order simply to not have to make mental space for an object on a “wish list.”
An unfinished purchase meant more mental clutter — but only if I was storing the unclosed “loop” around in my head.
To explain how my brain works in this respect:
Let’s say I spend 30 minutes looking at a type of microphone for video-blogging. (You could say that this is a hobby purchase, but I actually see video blogging — and a lot of writing — as forms of inbound marketing. This is precisely the type of thing I might order from the internet!)
If I “pull the trigger” now, I have at the forefront of my mind all the features I’ve determined that I want in this microphone. I’ve just geeked up on microphones and done the product comparisons between what’s currently available on the market at various price points.
Those things are now right there at the center of my mind and I’ve just expended the mental energy to determine which product offers the best match between what I will utilize and how much I know I can reasonably spend.
All I have to do is to make the purchase (immediately!) and I can mentally leave go of all that thinking and move on to whatever else is pressing of my attention.
There’s a pressure that builds between the point at which I have that mental flash (“a better vlogging microphone would be a great investment!”) and the moment I’ve finished my evaluation (“the X microphone is the best option that I can currently afford!”). That pressure usually didn’t release until I wrapped up the initiative by making the purchase.
But if I tell myself “let’s think about buying this in a month,” I know that there’s a high chance I’ll have forgotten all about the differences between (say) pickup patterns and manufacturers. My mind may have jumped over a zillion other things in the period in between.
Other things that I’d worry would slip out of my cranium:
What if I forget that I had even looked at getting that microphone — that the want existed?
What if I forget why I had determined it might be a useful thing to buy?
And what if –in, say, a month — I can no longer remember what a pickup pattern is, much less the one I had determined was best for my needs? What would happen then — if I didn’t make the purchase at all and carried on using my old microphone?
My second reason for tending to buy things immediately (perhaps better described as a mental block):
If I spend 30 minutes picking out that microphone, I’ve just invested that much time in the evaluation process (being self-employed, the time equals money formula is never that hard to remember).
Wouldn’t it be a pity not to see that process through to its end?! I can “recoup” that time sink through just completing the purchase!
Answer(s): the sunk cost fallacy. And: if you can store that information by documenting it — well, then it hasn’t been a waste to find it. You can keep it in your back pocket for when, or if, you ever determine you can really justify the purchase. It’s a mind trick. But for me, at least, it seems to be working.
So far, this system has been working nicely for me.
I can research some obscure item related to a hobby of mine — or my business — without prematurely ordering something. In fact, the only things I’ve bought from the internet so far this month have been related to organization (cuttable velcro, an incredible invention!). Those, for the moment, are certainly worthwhile.
The second big advantage: your thinking tends to clarify if you sleep on things — or let them go for a month. When you look back of last month’s batch of deffered purchases, it’s often so much easier to see what might truly be a justifiable purchase (say for your business) and what would likely just have sat on the shelf … until your next purge.
So those were my drivers. And this is what I’m doing instead.
Create A Document For Each (Major) Purchase You're Considering
Because I still wrestle with the feeling of not wishing to “lose” the research I tend to put into things I buy (and I certainly tend to do a lot of that!), I’ve decided, for the time being, to create little documents about things that I was about to purchase.
Within my Google Drive, I’ve created a folder called “deferred purchases.”
And any time I have a lightbulb moment about something that I think I need (and feel the urge to just go ahead and buy it) I draw up a quick doc instead.
I organize these by month. And I’ve set a recurring calendar appointment at the last day of each month to go back and see what I thought was a priority. If any jump out as great buys — and I can justify the expense — I’ll go ahead and buy them. If not, they can mature a little longer.
Let’s take one of my current weak candidates. The last item in the screenshot above.
I own a wireless microphone set that terminates in an analog connection (note: as I recently created this “doc” this is why I rolled with the microphone example above!). But my laptop doesn’t have a 3.5mm mic in port. If I wanted to do a live stream from my laptop, wouldn’t a USB lav mic be a great thing to have?
Potentially. But I’m also doing okay with my wired (USB) lav mic when I do videos at my computer. I could definitely see this being a solid purchase if I got into doing a lot of live streaming from different locations. I could record myself a few meters from the computer and not have to worry about cables reaching back to the laptop.
But right now, although I think it would be cool to do, I’m not doing a lot of work like that — and when I do vlogs my home office is typically my “studio”. So I knew that while this idea wasn’t bad, it could also be safely put on the longer finger. Perhaps this would be a nice thing to have when I start working more remotely.
I added a product photo so that I could quickly see what type of product I was looking at. And how much it cost:
Next, I added a link to the product.
Sometimes, I located a few sources from a product I’d like to buy — both domestic suppliers and international stores.
Not all ecommerce stores have wish list functionalities. And some (like Aliexpress!) restrict you to storing a relatively low number of them on your account.
Finally, I added a “purchasing rationale.” This is where I could go free-form and quickly jot down everything I figured out about this product’s typical features when I was doing my research and why I think this one would be the best buy from the various options on the market.
As simple as this system is, I’ve found it really effective so far to avoid impulse online purchases.
This month, I’ve avoided buying:
- A “communications cabinet” to store my new home networking setup in. Undoubtedly, this would look pretty slick and allow me store other things around where my networking gear is situated. But it’s definitely not something that I need.
- A new networking card for my desktop that has two ethernet ports. My entire desktop is now four years old and many of its components — like the NIC — could use an upgrade. With a second ethernet port, I could use Speedify to bond my cellular and ISP connections. But I could do the same thing much more cheaply by just buying an ethernet to USB adapter and waiting until I buy a whole new computer before making this upgrade.
And so on and so forth.
Once I have my rationale and links down in writing, I know I’ll be able to pick up the potential purchase at a later date without any concern that I’ll forget about why I thought it would be useful, which product I thought was best, and what the features I thought would be useful were.
The space it creates gives me time to think things over and reflect upon whether this is really something I need. And if yes — whether there’s mightn’t be a better alternative.
And simply not buying things right away gives me a lot of peace of mind knowing that I’m not making irresponsible shotgun purchases.