How NOT To Shop Smartly Online

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The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Kelly Gurnett. Kelly runs the blog, Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

With the hassle and crowds in stores this time of year, it’s no wonder that more and more people have taken to buying most of their holiday gifts online. It’s easy, convenient, you can do it in your PJs, and you can find some terrific online bargains…if you know how to shop smartly.

Below are several of the most common pitfalls to avoid when it comes to shopping online, for the holidays and throughout the year:

Overdoing It to Reach Minimum Shipping Requirements

Lots of sites dangle the promise of “free shipping” in front of you like a carrot, luring you to purchase through them…only to tell you, once you reach checkout, that you only qualify if you purchase a certain amount of stuff. (Missed that fine print and your excitement, didn’t you?) 

This can tempt you into adding just a few more items to your cart to reach that minimum—items you probably don’t really need, whose cost alone could nullify whatever you’re saving on shipping.

The solution? Check out for a list of stores that offer pro-bono shipping without the minimum requirements. If you’re shopping from a big-box store like Walmart or Sears, see if you can order online but pick up in store. And if you’re shopping on Amazon, there’s a great site called Amazon Filler Item Finder that will help you find items around the price range of that extra $2.17 you need to qualify for “Free Super Saver Shipping.”  You don’t have to search very hard to find something you’ll probably actually use (like a kitchen utensil or a small tool), which saves you from buying that $30 bestseller from your Wish List because the free shipping makes it feel justified.

Not Paying Attention to Shipping Times

If you’re buying through sites like Amazon Marketplace and eBay, you’re buying from everyday people all across the country (and the world) who all have their own individual shipping schedules. Even if you buy through the main Amazon site, many items are offered by third-party sellers, whose shipping times can vary wildly. I once nearly ordered an item before I noticed the estimated shipping time was four to six months! (Must’ve been a wildly popular whatever-it-was.)
The solution? Especially in this season, when time is of the essence, make sure you’re aware of how long it will take for each item to arrive, or you could wind up giving some people cards with pictures of their items and the words “Coming soon!” underneath. (Your best bet, honestly, is to start shopping early so that you don’t wind up paying for last-minute rush fees to get that gift under the tree.)

Being Lured in by Bright, Shiny Sales and Discounts

“Half-price on many items TODAY ONLY!” Chances are the items that are on sale are not the ones you need. (And that there will be several more “TODAY ONLY!” sales pretty every day from now till Christmas.) So, don’t buy that designer-whatever just because it’s 70% off unless you actually had “designer-whatever” on your shopping list and this truly is the best deal you’ve seen yet for it.

This item sells for $299 $50) Just because this particular site has slashed its price on an item doesn’t mean you can’t still find that item cheaper elsewhere. Plenty of sites sell items below the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, so simply being below that doesn’t necessarily guarantee you the best deal. (Although the numbers can look awfully impressive.)

The solution? Have a list, check it twice, and only buy the items you need—at a price you’re sure is the best. Hit up sites like PriceGrabber or BizRate to see what something is selling for across the web.

Not Knowing Return Policies

Especially at the holidays, when you find yourself buying items for people who may or may not like them from sites you may not have shopped at before, knowing a site’s return policy is crucial. Even if the gift is exactly what the recipient wanted, anything can happen from the time you place an order to the time that box arrives on your door—things can get broken, the wrong item can be shipped, you can learn the person already got that gift from somewhere else. You never know, so make sure to hedge your bets.

The solution? Check out the return policies on any new site you visit (or any site you’re not thoroughly familiar with). Make sure there’s at least a 30-day return window and that items can be returned for any reason. Stores that give you free return labels to send items back get double-points.

How about you all? What mistakes have you made in the past when shopping online? What strategies do you use that seem to work very well?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

    ***Photo courtesy of


    1. John S @ Frugal Rules says:

      Good post! It's always difficult to not spend more to get that free shipping. I do what I can to avoid having to pay for shipping, but not at the expense of spending more.

      • CordeliaCallsIt says:

        Exactly! I used to use it as an excuse to “buy a little something for myself”–until I realized that extra little “gift” just wiped out whatever I was saving in shipping.

    2. Ok, in the past I’ve been quite guilty of buying more just to reach the minimum free shipping requirements. I must say that some sites that offer free shipping on everything, have way higher prices for items than the sites where they do charge for shipping. I always compare to see what is cheaper.

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