6 Ways to Scratch the Itch of Online Shopping Without Spending Money

published May 3, 2020
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Since we began sheltering in place—and I’ve been getting weekly notifications from my iPhone about how much my screen time is increasing—I’ve noticed that I’m receiving a whole lot of emails from stores. The retailers I’ve given my email address to over the years are constantly having sales, offering promotions, slashing prices by 60 percent—something I’ve never paid much attention to before because I have a clothing subscription service and am not a big shopper.

But early on in quarantine, I took the bait and piled a bunch of yoga pants into my online cart and then headed over to an online home store and splurged on a new duvet cover and pillow shams. Then, my stove broke down so I’ve been on appliance stores’ websites, which has led me to dreaming about kitchen renovations.

Hunkering down at home with a lot of extra time often means looking for ways to self-soothe amid a pandemic—online shopping sprees are undoubtedly alluring. But with the economy in shambles and economic uncertainty ahead, now may not be the best time to make impulse buys. To get around this, I’ve been virtually putting together outfits in my Rent the Runway app for fantasy vacations; my editor here at Apartment Therapy has been building homes on Sims.

As it turns out, it’s possible to find substitutes for that mood-boosting payoff that comes with online shopping, explains Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist and a financial wellness advocate with Prudential.

“Retail therapy engages that old hunter-gatherer part of the brain that tells us we’re engaged in a search for a reward or resource,” Clayman says. “It’s a fully absorbing task and one that provides a mood-boosting dopamine payoff when we buy.”

The ease of searching and purchasing provides temporary relief, she explains, and we could all use a distraction right about now. But how can you get the same result without ever entering your card’s CVV? 

Here, Clayman and other experts give advice for how to scratch the itch of online shopping without actually spending any money.

Credit: Jeramey Lende/Shutterstock

Try out a home or fashion app

There are many reasons why we are drawn to online shopping, but primarily it is about two specific things: distraction and productivity,” Clayman says. Trick yourself by trying out one of the home or fashion apps that allow you to play interior designer or fashion stylist to build out the home or closet of your dreams, Clayman recommends. 

If you peruse the app store, you’ll notice most of the home design games are free, with in-app purchases available. But some are completely free, like Benjamin Moore’s Color Portfolio that lets you reimagine color in your home and IKEA Place’s augmented reality furnishing.

November Rawlings, an interior designer and publicist based in Connecticut, points to Eyely, which has a rug visualizer tool, where you can upload a photo of your own room and it will virtually place rugs from the site in your photo. “It’s like dress up for your home,” she says

Go ahead, put the items in your cart

Sometimes just the thrill of browsing and making selections is gratifying. So if you find yourself still wanting to search online for items to buy, put them into your cart but wait a full day before actually making any purchases, suggests Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance expert with NerdWallet.

“Before actually buying anything, consider whether the cost is worth it, and if you will still enjoy it in a month or 6 months or even a year,” Palmer says.

Another trick? “Put the items you want in your shopping cart and then move the amount you would’ve spent into savings,” suggests Erin Lowry, author of “Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together.” “In a few months, if you’re in a stronger financial position, you can go back and make the purchase, and probably even get a discount.”

Create travel itineraries 

During my last Zoom happy hour with friends, we each shared one place domestically and one place abroad we’d like to travel in the future. 

Lowry goes one step further and has been creating travel itineraries for vacations she wants to take once it’s safe to get on planes and travel restrictions are lifted. 

“I really can’t book anything, but even just doing all the research helps me have something to look forward to,” Lowry says.

Shop your friends’ closets

Sometimes it’s easy to forget what is hidden in the depths of drawers or back corners of closets, says Rachel Ritlop of The Confused Millennial. Go through your clothes, reorganize them, and reimagine them, says Ritlop who embraced this when she was doing a no-spend challenge that started as 30 days and lasted for two years.  

“If that doesn’t do the trick, enlist a few friends to do a clothing swap with,” she suggests. “While you may not be able to go into each other’s closets right now, you can put together a care package of items from your closet you think would be amazing for them and vice versa. You can either ship them or drop them off on each other’s doorsteps.”

Credit: Liz Calka

Create a Pinterest board

As an alternative to shopping, Kathleen Anderson, the principal designer with Material Design, recommends creating boards on Pinterest. “It’s like a virtual reality where I can plan rooms, wardrobes, vacations and parties without spending a design,” Anderson says. The same goes for designing mood boats in Photoshop or even creating some jazzy PowerPoints.

Try upcycling your clothes

If you’re shopping for new clothes, see if you get some satisfaction from transforming old items in your closet, suggests Soonjoo Uh, an upcycle clothing designer based in Los Angeles. She has tutorials on how to turn old jeans into an Alexa Chung-inspired denim mini dress, how to make a wrap dress without a pattern, and how to create a peplum blouse from a men’s dress shirt.

Of course, you know your budget best. If you’re looking to do some online shopping, here are some of the best tips experts have for saving money.