10 Scientific Steps To Improve Your Unhealthy Online Shopping Habits

Gleb Tsipursky
10 Scientific Steps To Improve Your Unhealthy Online Shopping Habits

Buying online can indeed save you time and money when done responsibly. However, you may also find you struggle with unwanted online shopping habits, such as buying items you don't need, going into debt to finance unnecessary purchases, and falling victim to sales deals that make your Amazon shopping cart overfloweth.

This article will give you actionable tools you can use to change your behavior, such as:

  • Tracking your behavior
  • Finding replacement habits
  • Creating obstacles to unwanted shopping
  • Changing your default behavior
  • Changing your shopping context
  • Setting limits
  • Setting reminders
  • Rewarding yourself
  • Getting social support

However, if you want your behavior change to succeed, that’s not where you should start. You need to start by taking a more scientific approach to habit change—understanding your emotions around shopping and the deep-rooted needs that prompt these emotions. You then need to find ways to satisfy these needs through different habits, and only then start to change your harmful shopping behaviors, in a sustainable manner

The steps in this article may seem more difficult than things like "keep a budget," or other simple steps suggested by other articles. However, you are much more likely to succeed in making true changes rather than short-term, temporary modifications if you follow this article's steps.  

Here are 10 science-based steps you can take to change your shopping habits and start saving money.

Step 1: Acknowledge That Emotions Drive Shopping Behaviors

Research on shopping illustrates clearly that our emotions, such as pleasure and excitement, lead to shopping behaviors. You, me, and everyone else shops based on our gut reactions, not based on our heads.

Step 2: Understand Which Emotions  Drive Your Shopping Behaviors

While we all share an underlying tendency to shop based on our feelings, the specific emotions that drive us are particular to ourselves. You need to look within yourself and evaluate what feelings drive your shopping: excitement, pleasure, joy, anxiety, frustration, guilt, and so on. You also need to assess the deeper underlying needs provoking these emotions that are satisfied by shopping. 

These needs may include a desire for control, autonomy, self-expression, social status, achievement, recognition, connection, belonging, fulfillment, and others. For example, if you tend to shop after  a stressful experience, you might be seeking more control; if you like to post pictures of your purchases on Facebook, you might be driven by a desire for status and connection.

Step 3: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence Around Shopping

Next, you need to commit to developing your emotional intelligence, which refers both to your ability to be aware of your emotions and also your ability to manage your emotions. These 2 distinct skill areas are prerequisites for effective and sustainable habit change. You have to make a personal commitment to building your strengths in both areas as you move forward.

Step 4: Keep a Diary of the Emotions You Experience While Shopping

Without changing anything in your behavior, start noticing and writing down what feelings you’re experiencing around shopping online. That includes whatever emotions pull you to shop, while browsing websites and making a purchase, when getting the item, as well as when seeing and paying the bill. Make an emotion diary in some kind of note-taking app or software such as Google Docs that will always be available whenever you shop, either on your smartphone or your computer.

It might be tempting to start changing your behavior as you track it. Don’t do so in any way that induces strain. At this stage, you don’t want to trigger a defensive emotional response that will undermine your hard work so far. If you naturally feel like shopping less, that’s fine, but don’t do anything that causes internal pressure. This is just about tracking and self-understanding, not change.

Step 5: Correct Your Misconceptions About Yourself

We’re often not aware of all or even most of our emotions and underlying needs, so your self-assessment from Step 2 likely needs to be adjusted. Compare your initial evaluation to your actual tracked feelings. Re-evaluate any differences to develop a more accurate self-assessment.

Step 6: Catalog the Shopping Habits You Want to Change

You now have a much better understanding of your emotional experience while shopping, and the deeper needs satisfied by your shopping behaviors. Regardless of whether you’re proud of them or not, your current shopping habits are what you are. They’re there because they satisfy some of your underlying needs.

Still, you wouldn’t be reading an article on how to change your shopping habits if you felt satisfied with all of them. At this point, you’ll want to catalog all of your shopping habits. Next, decide which ones you wish to change and why you wish to do so. Then, evaluate which of your needs those specific habits that you want to change satisfy. 

Step 7: Experiment With Healthy Replacement Habits

Here’s the key point. If you try to get rid of your unwanted shopping habits, you still need to satisfy those same underlying needs. If you don’t satisfy those needs and just try to stop those shopping habits, you’ll have a great deal of difficulty doing so. You’ll need to use willpower constantly to prevent yourself from slipping into your existing patterns, since our brain typically does what is easiest and most rewarding

So what you want to find are replacement habits. These habits should satisfy those deeper needs and be inherently rewarding, meaning emotionally desirable and pleasant, without any counterproductive consequences. 

For example, if your unwanted shopping episodes come after external stressors and stem from a desire for control, try doing something else to help you feel in control. Some people enjoy taking a long bath, others like to cook, or perhaps play with their cat or dog; personally, I like to do some gardening to regain a sense of control.  In essence, you want to find something that gives you a feeling of control without using shopping. Remember, your shopping habits are simply tactics your brain uses to address its deeper needs.

Step 8: Track How Your Replacement Habits Make You Feel

Since your replacement habits are inherently rewarding, this stage should be fun and easy. You’ll want to track your feelings before, during, and after engaging in your replacement habits. The goal is to make sure that these habits indeed satisfy those underlying needs; it’s easy for us to make a mistake in our self-analysis. If you find that the replacement habits you chose aren’t working out, this is your opportunity to change them. 

Practice and track your replacement habits for at least a month before going to the next stage. You’ll want them well-established before you get to the most difficult part of the process.

Step 9: Implement a Plan to Ramp Down Unwanted Shopping Habits 

Start by making a plan of what specific tactics you will deploy to ramp down your unwanted shopping habits. Here’s a range of tactics you can deploy as part of your broader plan. Treat them as a menu of options, experimenting with them and integrating the ones that most resonate with your personality. It’s wise to use each of them at least to some extent; while their effects somewhat overlap, each provides some unique benefits. 

Tracking: You’ve already been tracking your feelings. Now, you’ll track the unwanted habit itself, along with your feelings about it. Whenever you engage in your habit, write down what triggered you to do this behavior, and how much time and money you spent. Finally, write down each time that you notice a trigger occurring but you succeed in redirecting yourself toward a replacement habit or otherwise avoid indulging in the unwanted shopping habit. 

Replacement habits: You’re already doing these; integrate them into your plan, especially to replace unwanted shopping habits after a trigger occurs. Of course, this one is obligatory.

Obstacles: Create obstacles to unwanted shopping. For example, unsubscribe from merchant newsletters to avoid falling for “X% off deals” and delete the Amazon app from your phone.

Defaults: Change your default approaches to purchasing. Thus, if your default is to buy the latest fashion every season, reconsider that behavior, and focus on always-in-style purchases.

Context change: Change the context of your shopping, especially the social context. For instance, if you belong to shopping groups on Facebook, leave the groups. 

Limits: Limit the money and time you spend on shopping, as well as other limits that make sense for each habit.

Reminders: Create physical or digital reminders to yourself. For example, if your worst shopping happens in the evening and you made a limit to not shop after 6pm, set an alarm on your phone at 6pm reminding you to avoid shopping.

Rewards: Celebrate milestones in changing your unwanted habits by rewarding yourself. Thus, if you succeed in sticking to your shopping budget for a week, treat yourself to a fun, relaxing movie or bath. 

Social support: Talk to your friends and family about your desire to change your shopping habits. Ask them to support you by checking in with you about your progress, celebrate your successes, and cheering you up when you falter.

Step 10: Get to a Maintenance Level You’re Happy With

Once you establish a pattern of shopping behavior that makes you proud, transition into maintenance mode. And remember, we will all slip up with habit change occasionally, and it’s important to be ok with it. The key is to get back on the wagon, and ramp your habit change efforts back up. 

Many people will want to keep some of their habit change efforts, such as a limit on time and budget in their shopping. That’s quite fine, as long as you aren’t too strained by them. 

Make sure to keep up with your replacement habits. You’ll need them as long as you have those needs, and our needs change only slowly, and sometimes never. 

As part of your maintenance, make sure to check in occasionally on your habit change and ensure you’re still proud of it. Sometimes our old habits creep back in without us noticing it. 


By following this process, you’ll maximize your chances to change your shopping habits in a long-term and sustainable manner by relying on effective, science-based strategies. It’s not an easy, short-term, or simple process, but it works. Would love to hear about your experience with it, please contact me and share.

Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a writer for Top10 and a scholar of behavioral economics and neuroscience. Called the 'Office Whisperer' by The New York Times, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders improve retention and productivity as the CEO of the consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He's also the best-selling author of several books, and was featured in over 750 titles in CBS News, Time, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Inc. Magazine, and CNBC.