Young woman using smartphone

Once upon a time I had shopping lists.

When I thought about something I might want to buy, or read about an intriguing new product or gizmo, or heard a friend rave about a book or album, I'd add it to one of my many lists.

These days, our grocery list is pretty much the only list that's left. Now when I think about buying something, I open a new browser window and buy it. If I'm away from my computer or iPad, I use my smartphone. I don't need to go to the mall anymore -- the mall is anywhere I am.

I love the ease of this, because I really hate shopping at malls and at brick-and-mortar stores in general. I hate the parking hassles, the surly or indifferent clerks, the pain of lugging stuff home and the even greater pain of returning it.

By contrast, I love Amazon Prime and my Amazon app. I love knowing that almost anything I need, from dog food to printer ink, will be at my doorstep in two days or less. If I have a return, UPS can pick it up from my front porch -- and if I use a site with free returns, like Zappos.com, I don't even have to pay the shipping for my change of heart.

Yet I tremble a bit at this brave new world.

Lists served a function beyond mere prompting. They were also holding pens for desires. Sometimes, after an item was added to a list, I'd decide I didn't want it anymore.

Scarcity had a value, as well. Sometimes it was hard to find the sparkly new whatever I'd read about in a magazine. I could decide to put effort into tracking it down or just let it go. Usually, I let it go. Now I don't have to, since the iPad version of the magazine has links that take me right to the retailers' websites and usually right to the object itself.

I'm not alone in being worried about this. Some of my Facebook fans worry about the shift in how we buy.

"I don't have that 'walking around the store' time to re-think purchases," wrote one. "It's very impulsive."

"Smart phones make it way too easy to buy stuff," another agreed. "Too convenient, too fast."

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

But others pointed out the upsides that I've experienced as well.

"I have found I spend less, because I am able to use technology to find and purchase exactly what I want instead of walking around a store or mall full of at-hand temptations," wrote one mother, who added, "Plus, my smart phone or laptop after bedtime is so much easier than a three-year-old at the mall."

The same phones that make it so easy to shop also make it easy to review your bank balance, noted Jeromie Farnsworth of Raytown, Mo.

"I find that I actually spend less due to the ability to check my bank account from anywhere," he wrote, "which helps me stay more conscious of my spending."

The convenience of shopping from home is nothing new, of course. The first door-to-door salesmen probably appeared shortly after the invention of the first door. Rural residents have shopped the Sears mail-order catalog since 1894. Even QVC, the home shopping television channel, has been around for more than 25 years now.

What's changed is how quickly we can translate a desire into a purchase. A few clicks (or one click, with some retailers), and we're done. If you see an ad on the bus, you can point your phone at the ad's QR code -- one of those pixelated black-and-white squares that look a bit like product bar codes -- then click and go straight to the retailer's website.

We don't even need to dig into our wallet for a credit or debit card, if we've already entered our account number at the retailer's site. We can start reading a book, listening to a song or watching a movie almost instantly. Other products may take a little longer, but they'll still get to us quicker than any Pony Express delivery ever could.

"It's an instant-gratification culture par excellence," said therapist Olivia Mellan, the author of the book "Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and Their Partners." "It can be pretty horrifying."

Consider:

  • For people who are compulsive about shopping, the ability to do so anytime, anywhere can be financially devastating. They can bankrupt themselves, literally, in record time.
  • Those who have better control over themselves may still be adding to their credit card debt or stinting their savings with unwise spending.
  • Impulse spending can be a problem even if someone's finances are in great shape -- no credit card debt, on track with retirement savings and holding a fat emergency fund. After all, the money you spend on fleeting desires isn't available to be spent in ways that might bring you more happiness, if you could just stop buying long enough to think about what truly makes you happy.
  • Then there's the matter of shopping locally. If we want our money to benefit our local communities, we need to patronize local stores.

So how do we avoid thoughtless spending, now that it's so easy? Mellan recommends putting up a few speed bumps for ourselves and using a tough-love approach if we're clicking our way to financial ruin:

Re-create the waiting list. Put some amount of time -- days, hours, even just minutes -- between the idea of the purchase and the purchase itself. You can maintain a list of things you might want to buy (complete with relevant links) on your computer or phone. Or carry a small notebook with you just for this purpose. Just the act of recording the desire can help free your mind, which might otherwise nag you that you need to buy before you forget (as if that would be a bad thing). Your waiting period doesn't have to be excessive, just long enough to have second thoughts.

Ask yourself the important questions. During your waiting period, take a few deep breaths and think about the following:

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  • Can I afford it? This question can be as micro as "Do I have the cash available?" to as macro as "Is this really where I devote a portion of my life energy?" (If you haven't read "Your Money or Your Life," this may seem a little obscure, but it basically reflects the fact that we give up portions of our life working in exchange for money.) At the very least, you can check your bank and credit card account balances before you buy.
  • What are the alternatives? Can you use something you already have for the same purpose? Can you buy this locally? Are there free or cheaper alternatives? (You can get library books for your e-readers, free music from sites like Pandora or streaming radio stations, free TV shows and movies from Hulu, and a world of cheap or free stuff from Craigslist and the Freecycle Network.)
  • Where will it go? If it's a physical object, visualize where it will be placed. If it's digital, think about where it will fit in your collection. Sometimes just picturing added clutter, electronic or otherwise, can help cure your ardor.
  • What will it replace? I try to keep a one-in, one-out policy to combat clutter. Anything that comes into the house has to be offset by something going out, to Goodwill, recycling or the trash.
  • If you have a problem, admit you have a problem. These steps won't be enough to curb truly compulsive spenders. If shopping is threatening your finances or your relationships, you may need to block shopping sites (there's software that will help) or unsubscribe from deal sites and newsletters, plus deleting any apps that are feeding your addiction.

"You have to avoid slippery places," Mellan said. "Don't put yourself in harm's way."

Getting some counseling would be smart. If you're broke, you can start with Debtors Anonymous, a self-help group based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous that doesn't charge dues or fees. Get help now, before you're buried under an avalanche of too-easy purchases.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.