How to safely shop online this holiday season

Modern technology is a wonder. People can do things we would have never believed possible 25 years ago.

Most of us never would have guessed we’d be able to have video phones in our hands capable of streaming our conversations from anywhere around the world. After all, 25 years ago, many of us still were paying long distance bills to talk to someone in the same county on the corded telephone (or cordless if you were fancy).

I’m sure I would have thought the concept of cars that could drive themselves was insane — straight fiction out of the Jetsons. The truth is, many of us are blessed with conveniences beyond compare.

It makes me wonder where our world will be 25 years from now.

Chief among my favorites in this new modern way of living is online shopping. I’m certain my grandmother would have marveled at the idea of clicking a button to order everything from office supplies to groceries to new clothes from the comfort of her couch. Each year, the speed of shipping improves, too.

On Amazon, you can now order items and have them appear on your doorstep a mere hour later. And you can even shop your local grocery store or big box retailer online and pull up to the door and have someone put your groceries in the car. What a modern marvel.

But just because you can order something and have it arrive by the end of the day, doesn’t mean you should. Especially during the holiday season, the blessing of online shopping can quickly become a curse if consumers don’t practice smart strategies. Avoid the traps and maximize the potential of purchasing essentials and gifts alike with these quick and easy tips.

Don’t fall for the scams

Of prime importance for every single holiday online shopper is making sure the websites where they enter credit card numbers, addresses and emails are secure. Before placing a single item in your online cart, glance quickly at the URL bar. Sites with a small lock before the web address indicate a level of security ensuring your data remains encrypted and protected. If you don’t see the lock, close the browser as quickly as possible and move along.

Sometimes online pricing can seem a little bit too good to be true. I’m always enticed by the small ads on the sidebars of my Facebook feeds. Cute vintage dresses and witty t-shirts call to me. They fit my style and my budget — or so it seems. If pricing seems too good to be true on a retailer site you’ve never heard of before, you need to check the reviews. Do a quick Internet search to see how other customers have ranked the website in question.

Stack up the rewards

When you can, bundle great online pricing with rewards programs. Some online retailers give you points for your purchases good toward online and in-store coupons for dollars off when you purchase a certain amount. But you have to link your rewards card with the store in question to make the most of these programs. In particular J.C. Penney and Kohl’s both offer fantastic rewards and you’ll miss out if you’re not a member of their loyalty programs or forget to sign in before shopping.

Third party sites such as Ebates, Swagbucks or BeFrugal offer an additional incentive for shoppers. Sign on first to their site, set up an account, and then click out to hundreds of online retailers and you can get a cash back percentage of your purchase. Best of all, these sites also round up online coupon codes helping you save even more money.

Don’t fall in the rabbit hole

The mixed blessing of online shopping is finding products you never even knew you “needed.” Thanks to the brilliance of technology combined with marketing, your web browser crunches the numbers and intuitively begins to show you a constant stream of other products. One quick login turns into an afternoon of spending beyond your budget. Set time limits for your shopping experience to prevent yourself from spiraling into endless clicking and overspending.

When possible, range the prices of products so your eyes don’t get drawn toward products out of your budget. I always list the search results so the lowest priced objects appear first instead of the best sellers or most popular items. If you’re not sure about a particular purchase, leave it in your cart for 24 hours and return to make a rational decision instead of getting caught up in the moment.

Last but not least, sometimes adding more items to your cart just to score free shipping doesn’t make sense. Again, look for coupon codes to score free shipping or wait to place your last-minute orders Dec. 15th, termed Free Shipping Day where hundreds of online retailers nix their regular fees to encourage you to pick up your last-minute gifts and holiday trimmings.

Online shopping allows us to wear our comfy pjs and avoid the crowds. Someone else lugs the packages to our door and many times we can save more money, too. But we need to be smart when wielding this powerful tool. Don’t fall victim to malicious retailers or spending more money than necessary. Don’t waste your precious time or precious dollars on mindless shopping or endless clicking. Make a plan to shop smart and save money this holiday season.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe and her husband paid off $127,000 in debt in four years and now live debt-free every day with their two kids. She is the author of “Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After.” Send questions, column ideas and comments to