money·3 min read

How BOGO, Flash Sales, and Other Marketing Tactics Affect Your Wallet (and Your Willpower)

A sale sign in a clothing shop
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
Sep 2, 2021

Sure, sales might seem like a great thing. And when you’re buying the essentials you know you’re going to use (hi, groceries and kitchen tools), they can be. But buying more than you need just because it’s on sale might not make sales such a good deal. 

What do you mean?

Remember: retailers are more interested in boosting their bank accounts than helping yours. Big sales are one way they try to tempt customers into spending more than they planned. IRL, businesses might stash essentials near the back, so you have to walk through the whole store to get to them. Plus, you’ll find cheap impulse buys like snacks and magazines near the register, where you’re likely to add last-minute extras to your cart. Online, you might get a timer at the bottom of your screen counting down until a sale is over.

Hmm, sounds sneaky. What else should I watch out for?

Some common sales tactics include:

  • Bogus BOGO. The opportunity to buy one product, get another one free feels like a savings win. But BOGO items tend to be overpriced. So it could be more like BTARP: buy two at regular price. Not as catchy or wallet-friendly.

  • “Free” shipping. Another good perk...except when you have to add more to your cart to meet the minimum to get it. In some cases, you’d be better off paying the shipping fee than buying something you don’t need.

  • Limited-time offers. Putting a deadline on a deal can pressure you to buy before it’s gone. But don’t let FOMO determine your shopping list. Flash sales are rarely as exclusive as they seem.

What can I do to save money?

Knowing how marketers use psychology and other tricks to get you to spend more is the first step. But there are a few more ways you can keep shopping costs down.

  • Make a list. And check it twice. Aka don't shop without a plan. Know what you need, including the dollar amount you can afford to spend. Avoid adding anything to your cart that’s not on your shopping list, even if there’s a so-called deal attached to it.

  • Track prices. Tools like PayPal Honey, Capital One Shopping, or CamelCamelCamel for Amazon can send you price drop alerts, help you find coupons, or track down better deals somewhere else. Even if you already bought the item, you may be able to use a retailer’s price-matching policy to get a refund for the difference.

  • Get cash back. If you're taking advantage of a sale to buy something you need, make it count. Using a rewards credit card is one way to earn cash back on purchases or get a statement credit on your next bill. Or you can sign up for a cash-back site like Rakuten, which sends you a check every quarter for shopping at preferred retailers. Just be sure to stick with your budget and pay off any balances in full and on time.


Sales come and go. But your financial security shouldn’t.

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