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Ten Ways the Internet Tricks You into Spending Your Money

You may not realize it, but the internet is probably costing you a lot more money than just your monthly cable bill. The time you spend online (read: most of the time you’re awake and maybe sometimes even when you’re half asleep) is time that you are exposed to countless shopping and spending opportunities. In the days of exclusively brick-and-mortar shopping, there were physical stores with designated hours. The primary alternative was catalog shopping, wherein you were politely instructed to allow roughly 4 to 6 weeks for processing and shipping. 

Now, you can buy dresses, dressers, and Dodge Durangos in the wee hours of the night. Not only that, but most of it can be made to show up at your doorstep by sunrise. So naturally, the opportunity to spend your money at all times is greater than ever before. But there is something more at play, something innately psychological, about our propensity to spend online.

The internet works in strange ways…strange and sometimes creepy ways. The tactics that advertisers and merchants use to get your attention are far subtler, more subliminal, and more persistent than those available to the marketing Mad Men from decades past. As a citizen of the web, you know you’re being targeted by advertisers. You know you are the subject of promotions and campaigns. You may even tell yourself that you won’t be susceptible to the powerful sway of advertisers.

Always Online, Always Available, Always Advertising

And of course, you do have the personal agency to resist the pull of savvy marketing. But there is something that makes online marketing vastly different from promotional methods of the past. For one thing, the web is absolutely omnipresent. In ancient times—circa 1998—you could turn off the television, close your magazine, and stay off of highways large enough to support the billboard industry. Boom. Just like that, you were unplugged.

Thanks to the near total proliferation of high speed wireless internet and mobile telecommunication, advertisers can now reach you on the highest mountain peak, in the most remote jungle, and deep in the heart of the most serene day spa. Not only can they reach you, but they can do it through personalized, tailor-made, and occasionally invasive promotional content, all courtesy of the device in your hand. 

This isn’t necessarily how the internet was supposed to play out. Indeed, Time reports that “A decade ago, it was thought that the Internet would make buying more rational by doing away with the marketing distractions of traditional stores, facilitating price and product comparisons, and freeing us from time pressure. Instead, we find ourselves in a virtual bazaar where we have out-of-control alter egos to contend with, and where buying transactions are so remote from handing over cash or even credit cards that it no longer feels like spending. And so we spend more.”

Obviously, online shopping and spending are convenient, and sometimes even fun. But you may be wondering if it’s possible to spend time online and still keep some measure of your free will as a consumer. Well, as the saying goes, knowing is half the battle. Know what tactics online advertisers and merchants use to get inside your head. Then you can decide exactly how much access you wish to allow them.

If you’d rather just find better ways to financially support your online impulse shopping tendencies, check out these 10 Ways Telecommuting Can Save You Money. Feel free to spend those savings on whatever you want. 

Otherwise, read on for a look at 10 Ways the Internet Tricks You Into Spending Your Money…

1. The Fear of Missing Out

FOMO. The Fear of Missing Out. It is a powerful cultural imperative—the nagging psychological feeling that by declining to take part in an activity, experience, or trend, you might be deprived of some important personal gratification. This feeling causes us to inflate the consequences of opportunities we fail to seize. The images that we see everyday online, especially through social media, magnify this imperative. We see others seizing the day, and we wonder if we could be doing more to carpe diem in our own lives. 

And often, the end result is the sensation that you must purchase something, travel somewhere, or experience something in order to cure your FOMO. And naturally, your social media feed is saturated with opportunities to buy the cure, in whatever form it may take. 

The phenomenon is particularly profound for younger web users. Indeed, according to CNBC, a study from the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North American, “which examined social media’s impact on American spending habits, found that nearly 90 percent of millennial respondents say social media creates a tendency to compare their own wealth or lifestyle to that of their peers. That’s compared to 71 percent of those in Generation X and 54 percent of Baby Boomers who say the same.” 

2. Consumption Compensation

You don’t need to fear missing out on a broad cultural experience to subscribe to the idea of retail therapy. Shopping as a method of self-care far predates the existence of ecommerce. The difference today is that we are in a position to be constantly reminded of the things we want while simultaneously being given ways to immediately buy these things. 

Online advertisers understand this, and use your desire for retail therapy against you. It’s easy to spot examples if you know what to look for. A purportedly organic blog may simultaneously warn you of the dangers of obesity while providing a single-click solution in the form of a dietary supplement. A celebrity gossip site filled with images of beautiful, airbrushed movie stars may be little more than a backdrop for an array of ad spots for cosmetics and clothing.

Content producers are skilled at presenting you with both the problem and solution in one place, which sounds great in theory, but in practice, is a complete drag on the human psyche and the household budget. According to CNBC “About 60 percent of millennials report feeling ‘inadequate’ about their own life because of something they saw on social media, like flashy clothing or vacations, the study notes. And, as a result, 57 percent say they parted with money they hadn’t planned to spend.”

Be aware of the ways that web marketers key in on your insecurity. When you do, you may find that there are more constructive ways of providing self-care than simply exercising your buying power.

3. The Consumption Contagion

The pressure to purchase doesn’t just come from models, celebrities, and attractive influencers. The Washington Post notes that we are highly susceptible to virtual peer pressure–that the images we see of friends, family, and acquaintances on social media cause us to constantly reevaluate our own consumption priorities. 

Washington Post explains that “We can log on to watch kids unbox expensive toys on YouTube. Facebook lets us stay in touch with our rich college classmates who always seem to be on vacation. We can create and share detailed logs of the stuff we consume on sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. We can see what our co-workers ate last night on Instagram.”

We are constantly exposed to the purchasing decisions made by the people in our lives, or on the periphery of our lives. The result for many is the feeling that we must keep apace by constantly making purchases that measure up. Friends and family members naturally use social media to share the acquisition of a new car, their arrival on the distant shores of some exotic destination, the finished product from some exquisite home remodeling project. 

We all get front row seats for what were once private purchases, only visible to your immediate circle of friends and neighbors. This firsthand view may incline us to wonder what we could and should be purchasing in our own lives in order to stack up. Thanks to the web, keeping up with the Joneses is now a 24/7 preoccupation.

4. Laser Guided Target Marketing

Cookies may be delicious but they can also be dangerous. In case you aren’t familiar, “cookies” are small bits of text that are transmitted to your web browser when you visit certain websites. They aren’t necessarily insidious. Many perfectly legitimate online stores, news sites, and organizations use cookies to better understand your browsing habits. This allows a website to better tailor your personal browsing experience to your demonstrated preferences. 

Of course, this data can (and will) be used by advertisers as well. Their goal is to show you content that might incline buying decisions based on your demonstrated preferences. If you think social media outlets are giving away the use of their platforms for free, think again. You and your cookies combine to produce extremely valuable data, and advertisers pay handsomely to leverage this data. 

According to CNBC, 2017 alone, “Facebook brought in $39.9 billion of revenue from ads alone. Instagram recently rolled out Instagram Shopping, which allows people to view product descriptions and pricing. And other social media platforms facilitate monetary transactions directly from the website or app.”

Social media is a thriving hub of information, engagement, and ad space. The more time you spend on that hub, the more data you avail to web browsers, platforms and advertisers, and the more precisely they can use that data to determine what you want and how you can be best compelled to buy it. The good news is that many sites will give you the option to allow cookies, or even specify the type of data you will or won’t allow to be collected. The next time you are given this option, take a closer look at the kind of data websites collect. This can tell you a lot about how advertisers will ultimately leverage your information to encourage purchases.

5. Virtual Stalking

And it’s not simply that online advertising can be designed specifically to target your tendencies, habits, and interests. It’s also that this advertising can take countless forms, and infiltrate your life through countless avenues. 

Directions Credit Union warns that ads will follow you, offers will be extended again and again, reminders will pop up. Cookies make it possible for e-commerce retailers to give you multiple opportunities to reconsider your restraint. You may visit a website, view a few items, and quickly depart. It may only be a matter of minutes before ads for this site start blotting out pictures of your friends on your social media feed.

It’s even easier to follow you around once you’ve created an account or made a purchase. As the Credit Union explains, “That subtle email reminder that you still have items in your cart is a nice way of nudging you back into buying mode. Fact is, it works. When retailers send you emails with headlines that scream ‘Today Only!’ they get your attention.”

6. The Rise of Ultra-Convenience

There are few factors that have more stimulated our impulse spending habits than the desire for instant gratification. In fact, the web gives us far more latitude to attain this gratification. It’s no longer novel to point out that we can make purchases while sitting at home in our pajamas. That’s old news, and legions of now-defunct brick and mortar companies would tell you that, if only they were still around. 

Today, we’ve moved well beyond the competition between e-commerce and physical shopping. Instead, merchants are in a constant arms race with one another to simplify and accelerate the process of purchase from the moment of initial impulse to final product delivery. By removing latencies in the shopping process at every step of the way, e-commerce outlets give us less time to reconsider our shopping decisions. 

Voice-activated personal assistance devices are a compelling demonstration of this premise in action. The Ringer notes that devices like Dash and Echo remove any impediments to having everything you want exactly when you want it. Consumers and marketers place the ultimate premium on convenience, says the Ringer, and merchants continue to innovate toward satisfying that desire. 

“‘The Quest for Convenience has never been greater,’ a recent Nielsen white paper explained, also labeling it ‘the ultimate currency.’ The more chaotic and stressful people’s lives are, the more they may choose to value time over money. Consequently, retail strategies are less focused on price-cutting and more on maximizing efficiency.”

The fewer clicks it takes for you to make a purchase, the more likely you are to do it. The ever-growing convenience of online shopping is fashioned to exploit this behavioral tendency. 

7. Free Shipping and Easy Returns

Beyond the innovations that speed up the purchase process, online shopping is naturally designed to reduce the feeling of risk. The early days of web shopping brought with them the emergence of certain conventions, most of them designed to offset the natural skepticism that consumers had about this new mode of shopping. 

To assuage the fears that naturally accompanied purchasing items without actually viewing, feeling, or trying them on, the web revolutionized the concepts of free shipping and easy returns. In a sense, this actually makes online shopping less risky than the traditional method, at least in terms of lost time. It takes less effort to simply thrust an ill-fitting blouse back into the mailbox than to dig out a receipt and return to the store.

And as Consumerism Commentary notes, many e-commerce vendors will use the promise of free shipping to entice spending that might not have otherwise occurred. As Consumerism Commentary explains, “The lure of free shipping is an important tool in getting customers to spend more on each visit. Even if shipping only costs $4 or $5, shoppers will put extra items in their basket that cost several times that much just to qualify.”

8. The Decline of Comparison Shopping

One major casualty in our quest for convenience is the art of comparison shopping. The Ringer reports that “Prioritizing efficiency has also discouraged consumers from useful (but time-sucking) activities like comparing prices and researching options. In a recently published 10-year analysis of consumer spending habits, University of Chicago economists found that comparison shopping is down, while specialized buying—or the purchase of specific products instead of general-use products—is on the rise.”

Ironically, while we have countless shopping options at our fingertips, we are more often compelled by the speed at which we can get it all done. Too much time spent comparison shopping may feel counterintuitive to this objective. Moreover, we may be more willing to spend a few extra dollars to make a purchase through a trusted outlet. 

Merchants who sell through platforms like Amazon, Etsy and eBay tend to benefit from the assurances that the platform itself provides to shoppers. How many times have you simply jumped directly to Amazon in search of a desired item based on its familiarity and convenience? And how many saving opportunities have you passed up by declining to compare prices elsewhere first?

9. Subscribe and Cancel … or Not

Free previews are the lifeblood of subscriber-based services. From premium media content streaming services and newspapers to scholarly journals and gaming apps, we are presented with countless opportunities to sign up and sample the wares. We may be courted with new and original content, limited-time deals for long-term signups, specialized access to promotional pricing, and more.

You may feel clever while you’re binge-watching that new HBO Max drama for one free month. But you’ll probably feel less clever three months later, when you’ve totally forgotten both about your subscription and anything that ever happened in that show you were so into just a few months back. By this point, you’ve probably already paid for a few months’ worth of service without even knowing it. 

Indeed, The Ringer reports that “subscription services and the complications of canceling those agreements have…affected consumer spending habits.” Make sure you know what you’ve subscribed to and, if you plan on canceling at the end of the free trial period, be sure to put it on your calendar. Always remember to cancel before any charge can be applied.

10. Discounts, Promos and Fire Sales

Every day is Black Friday online. The virtual universe is designed to make you feel that every shopping opportunity is one not to be missed. Directions Credit Union points out that “Online retailers often offer discounts after you’ve reached a certain spending threshold. Just like the free-shipping minimum, these conditional discounts manipulate you into spending more to qualify.”

But of course, spending more than you intended simply to score a discount may be somewhat self-defeatist. Internet marketers are skilled at making you feel as though you’re saving money when you’re actually committed to spend more. 

Consumer advocates always advise buyers to think about whether they need, or simply want, certain material items. But with web advertisers, the question is a bit deeper. When it comes to online shopping, you must always ask yourself if you actually want it, or you’ve just been made to think you want it. 


Online shopping carries more risks than just spending a fortune. Every time you participate in an online transaction, you may also open yourself up to various forms of fraud and identity theft. As long as you’re taking a step back to reexamine your online shopping habits, take a look at our Ten Tips For How To Protect Yourself From Identity Theft.