Cultivate good online shopping habits

An AICPA survey shows two in five Americans struggle to stick to their monthly budget due to online shopping.
By Megan Hart

More than 40% of Americans say online shopping has made it more difficult to stick to their monthly budget. That’s according to a new survey from the AICPA, which shows Americans made a lot of online purchases in 2020. In fact, more than half of Americans (56%) saw their online spending increase between April and December of last year.

"Online shopping is too easy,” said Tracie Miller-Nobles, CPA, a member of the AICPA Consumer Financial Education Advocates. “If you think about how most online shopping websites work, you oftentimes don't even have to enter your credit card information. You can simply add items to your cart and click ‘Place Order,’ all without even really thinking about how much you're spending.”

In December 2020, Harris Poll asked 2,116 U.S. adults about their online shopping habits on behalf of the AICPA. The survey showed that two in five Americans (39%) don’t realize how much they’ve spent on their credit or debit cards until reading their monthly statements.

The survey examined buying habits during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period when people relied heavily on online shopping and delivery services, Miller-Nobles said. Almost 40% of Americans reported an uptick in online grocery shopping, while 33% increased their spending on third-party food delivery apps, such as Uber Eats and Postmates. As the pandemic subsides, it’s a great time to consider your online spending, Miller-Nobles said.

“Set aside time at the end of this month to truly look at how much you are spending online. Set a goal to reduce the amount you're spending by a specific percentage and instead invest this savings into your retirement account,” she said.

According to the survey, more than half of Americans (52%) say it feels good to buy something they want without considering the price. And with online shopping, it can be easy to find the perfect item, thanks to targeted ads. Almost a quarter of Americans (24%) increased their purchases from social media ads, the survey showed. Miller-Nobles recommends treating all online shopping like a trip to the supermarket: Make a list and stick to it.

To avoid overspending online, she puts items in her cart and leaves them there.

“If I find that I've forgotten about those items after a couple of days, I will delete them from my cart,” Miller-Nobles said. “Additionally, I don't sign up for any store promotional emails. I find that the emails I receive announcing the ‘next biggest sale’ are too tempting.”

She’s not alone: Eight out of 10 Americans (82%) say they’re more likely to buy something online if there’s a promotion, like free shipping. However, online shopping also has its benefits. It’s much easier to compare prices across websites than at multiple brick-and-mortar stores. But don’t forget to include hidden costs, such as taxes and delivery fees, Miller-Nobles said.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at


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