It’s 3 p.m. on a cold, dreary Monday. As a freelance writer who works from home, I’m in my usual place in front of my computer when I suddenly realize I have two back-to-back birthday parties for my preschool-age sons coming up in just five days.
With my brain on autopilot, I start typing “Amazon.com” into my browser, intent on searching for $25-and-under gifts with next-day shipping, a benefit of my $99-a-year Prime membership.
Two seconds later I realize what I’m doing and my fingers freeze.
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I can’t go to Amazon or any other online retailer, or I’ll be breaking my commitment to take a seven-day pause from internet shopping. This digital shopping detox comes on the heels of a holiday season when I not only went over budget, I bought gifts online so many times that I felt sadly disconnected from the holidays.
So I grit my teeth and carve out a one-hour slot in my calendar to hit the toy store that’s five miles from my suburban Connecticut home, irritated that I can’t cross this task off my to-do list yet. It’s at this moment, on day one of my cyber-shopping sabbatical, when I realize that abstaining from my routine is going to be a whole lot more challenging than I'd hoped.
A Hard-Core Online Shopper
I’ll be the first to admit that shopping is a deeply ingrained part of my lifestyle.
As a mom of two preschoolers, I make online purchases for household necessities three to five times per week. I’ve never experienced motherhood without Amazon Prime or BuyBuyBaby.com. The minute I’m out of something, my first thought is to log on and buy it, via my web browser or iPhone app. I also shop for groceries on the web and I’ve signed up online for food delivery services that cost from $30 to $60 per week.
I can’t blame my dependency on my kids though. In addition to shopping for family essentials, I often click on promotions from about 50 different stores I love. My main splurge is clothes. Gifts too. The minute after I RSVP for an event, I go online and purchase one or two items (plus gift wrapping). It's fun to have an excuse to shop, and doing it immediately makes me feel so organized and efficient.
I’m certainly not alone in relying on the apps and the web to buy almost everything. According to a June 2016 annual online survey of more than 5,000 consumers by UPS, for the first time in the study’s five-year history, respondents said more than 50% of all purchases are made via the web, up from 48% in 2015.
I shop online for the same reasons so many others do: It’s easy—and not having to run out to the mall saves me tons of time. But it’s not without cost, and I'm not just talking about the $10 shipping fee. I know I'm also shopping for the fun of it and the impulse-buying can easily get out of control. That's why I thought cutting the cord would be a worthy experiment: I would go cold turkey for one week in hopes of rewiring my brain and helping to save money and make up for all that holiday overspending.
This sounded good in theory, like going on a seven-day juice cleanse to restart healthy eating habits after a binge. But I wondered: Would I be able to rework my routine and shop smarter—or is online shopping just too convenient and fun to give up? I was about to find out.
The E-Commerce Experiment Begins
The first two days of my detox were hard. I resented not being able to take advantage of sales offers emailed to me, such as one for 20% off leggings at Athleta and another for an online jewelry outlet that was offering a 25% discount on some bracelets I loved. Even though I knew that I didn't really need new leggings or jewelry.
I felt taunted by pop-up ads on Facebook for goods I’d browsed the week before. I consoled myself by remember that by resisting the temptation to fill an electronic shopping cart, I was saving on shipping costs (about $20 or so had I bought everything I wanted), in addition to the cost of the items themselves.
Because I also gave up food shopping online, I felt especially stressed when I had to take about 30 minutes in the middle of the week to craft a detailed grocery list before a trip to the supermarket. Normally, I’d just reorder practically everything from the week before and send in my order.
But supermarket shopping in-store proved to be a good thing. I became a pickier buyer, and I had to read the labels of all snack foods twice to make sure they didn't contain any allergens. (One of my sons has allergies to nuts, sesame and mustard seeds.) For the first time in my life, I spent one hour in a grocery store making sure I had everything.
Another benefit emerged when I wasn’t always looking at the mobile shopping apps on my phone. By not constantly browsing promotions, I felt like my brain was decluttering. And cleaning, cooking and playing with my kids no longer overwhelmed me. I actually spent the entire hour at my 2-year-old's gymnastics class just watching and enjoying him.
On day four, I had to shorten a gym workout so I’d have time to make that toy-store run for the upcoming preschool parties. By actually seeing the huge selection of toys and letting my eyes wander, I stumbled upon the best birthday present for my musical almost-3-year-old: a rock band set, on sale for half off. I purchased it, had it wrapped and saved $25! The experience was so serendipitous, and it’s unlikely to have happened online.
Success—and Some Surprises
When my seven days were up, I expected to go right back to click-buying. But after I logged onto my computer, something strange happened: My craving for Athleta leggings had evaporated, as did my need for the gorgeous wrap bracelet I thought I wanted. Now I don’t have to live with the guilt of overspending on apparel.
I saved about $120 in one week by not buying the clothes and jewelry I'd been eyeing, but I didn’t save significantly after switching from online grocery shopping to the actual store. For food and other supermarket items, I normally part with about $190 a week; I spent $192 during the week of the experiment. I did resist trying out a food-delivery promo sent to my email inbox, so I saved $36 on that.
Though I weaned myself away from buying on demand, doing without the convenience of cyber-buying groceries and last-minute gifts was harder to deal with. Since I have to purchase these anyway, whether in a brick-and-mortar store or online, I think doing the bulk of it online is best. Services like Amazon Prime save me so much time that any extra nominal costs (like $7.99 for a box to fit all of my household items) are worth it for my family budget.
But this detox did bring about a few unexpected changes—I’ve decided to try to give as much business as possible to the two independent stores in my neighborhood. After finding the perfect gift for my son on sale last week at one toy store in town, I’m excited to see what other surprises are in store. And an added perk? It was nice to chat with real people in the middle of my busy day and to talk about real things, rather than simply scrolling and charging.