Shoppers who struggle to resist online sales and then later regret making purchases can now download a free tool to help control their spending.

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is launching a trial version of the 'Shopper Stopper' desktop browser plug-in (that's an extra piece of software that works alongside what you use to browse the internet). It allows you to block yourself from accessing online stores at times you find purchases particularly hard to resist, such as the middle of the night.

Shopper Stopper is available to download on the Chrome and Firefox browsers – you can sign up to get it here. It's also expected to be available on the Edge browser in the coming days.

The tool's been launched as research published by the institute showed that many regret impulse purchases, and those living with mental health problems are particularly badly affected (see full details below).

In November last year, we stopped sending the weekly MSE email in the early hours of the morning after a previous report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found "consumers with mental health problems report night-time shopping as particularly damaging".

If you're struggling with debt and have a mental health problem, you can also download our free Mental Health and Debt guide.

How does Shopper Stopper work?

It's still being tested, so this is an early version, but you can download it and help trial it now. It works on desktop computers but not tablets or mobiles, although the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is considering developing it on other devices in future.

The Shopper Stopper tool allows you to:

  • Set the times at which you can access selected online shops
  • Write a personal message to appear when trying to access a shop outside of these hours, with a reminder why a block was made in the first place
  • Choose an alternative activity that is suggested to you on the blocker that appears when trying to access a closed store
  • Give a 'virtual spare set of keys' to a friend who can unlock closed shops in an emergency

Janet, who has schizophrenia and has already tested the Shopper Stopper tool, told the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute: "I have trouble sleeping and when I'm awake at night I browse the internet and used to end up spending hundreds of pounds some nights.

"Now I've set the Shopper Stopper to close my favourite online shops between 11pm and 7am, this has made a huge difference. Now the day begins and the impulse to spend has passed, I no longer feel as lonely and it is now quite rare that I go back to buy those items I tried to during the night."

'Put vulnerable shoppers back in the driving seat' founder Martin Lewis, who set up the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute in April last year, said: "Mental health problems can erode people's self-control and decision-making ability. We want to empower people with tools that put them back in the driving seat.

"Many people shop to make themselves feel better in periods of depression, to give things to others to feel needed or to fill the time when they're bored or lonely. But the boost it gives is transitory, while the financial pain it can cause lingers on and on.

"The constant availability of online shops and increasingly sophisticated targeted marketing techniques make resisting spending impulses even more difficult, and increase the pace and scale of financial harm that results.

"Today we're launching our own experimental tool to help shoppers counter that. It's by no means a cure-all, but by allowing people to set the opening hours of online shops, we want to add a little extra friction into the buying process. We need as many people as possible to take part in this test – to see if it works for them and if we should expand it – so please download the tool, have a go and tell us if it works for you."

Polly Mackenzie, director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, added: "As well as launching our own experimental tool to help, we're calling on retailers to allow shoppers greater control over their retail environment. We want to see retailers enabling things like daily spending limits and the ability to opt out of night-time marketing emails, as well as improving returns processes.

"This will allow their customers to shop when they really want and need to, rather than driven by loneliness, boredom or depression."

Research shows many regret impulse purchases

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has also published findings from a new survey into the problem of impulse buying.

Of 2,051 people polled, 63% who had made purchases they later regretted said they did so because of sales, while one in 10 (9%) said they always or often regret purchases made online.

The problem seems particularly acute for those already living with mental health problems. Around half of this group said they make purchases they regret when alone (48%) or feeling low (52%) and nearly a third said they make purchases they regret at night (31%). These figures are nearly double those for people without mental health problems (24%, 22% and 16% respectively).

To make matters worse, the research also found that many shoppers are struggling to return goods they regret buying, with three-quarters of those surveyed saying they did not return their last regretted online purchase.