Just say ‘no’: Psychological tips for holiday spending

by Krystal White Contributing Writer

The holiday season packs on as much debt in our saving accounts as it does pounds around our waists. After a few years of overconsumption, a habit of overspending can develop, leading into a numbing of our purchasing pleasure and gift-receiving high. It is easy to equate a good holiday with making people feel good through spending too much money. Gifts, going out for meals, traveling, entertainment and decorations all add up quickly. Our holiday spending accounts for almost 20 percent of total annual retail sales. The average person spends $730 per year on gifts alone, amounting to more than $602 billion in American revenue each year.

Our American culture, especially our holiday culture, supports more and more consumption. It encourages us to buy things we don’t need or want, for example, think the secret santa exchanges at the office or white elephant parties. Buying things without planning or intention often makes us feel anxious and later guilty and regretful.

As a household, do you really want to spend almost $1,500 on your holiday season celebrations? If you find yourself wanting to save some or most of that money on other investments or prevent yourself from contributing unnecessary debt, follow these guidelines to prevent impulsive, unwanted holiday spending:

• Choose to not shop for fun for the next two months. Find other activities you find pleasurable. Most of us feel good as soon as we buy something new, and that “feel good” feeling is heightened if we buy a gift, instantly anticipating how good it will make another person feel. It is important to remember that adults tend to forget what you buy them within a few weeks, and children within a few hours or even days. Buying gifts does not significantly make other people appreciate or like you more; accumulative quality time is one thing that does this. So save that feel good fun time and plan a date together or write out a well-worded card for the person whom you are buying that gift for. Kids will remember years down the road that time you took them ice skating. They will unlikely remember the specific Lego set they got for Christmas.

• Donate. Giving away some of that gift-buying money is likely to give you a happy feeling and good memories. Studies using MRI technology have shown that people who donate money have brain activity in the reward center of their brains. Start a family tradition of volunteering time, donating money or making gifts for others that you know in your community. Even just volunteering to baby-sit while your friends attend a holiday party or go out on a date will make you feel better and spend less in the end.

• Get enough shut-eye. We all know not to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, and this concept is similar. Sleep deprived people buy more, both online and in stores – Amazon sales significantly go up at night. Research confirms that sleep deprivation impacts our willpower in two ways: It changes circadian rhythms, which impairs our ability to metabolize glucose and sugar, probably impairing our self control, and it can decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain guiding our decisions. More than any time of year, make sleep a priority and aim for eight hours. Any less and your bank account, in addition to your loved ones, will suffer.

• Say “no” for 10 minutes. If you really see something to buy that speaks to you, for yourself or as a gift, put it down and walk out of the store. Get a snack or a drink, use the restroom or buy a needed household good at a different store. If after these activities during that 10-minute period you still have a strong desire, consider if you can wait one more week. Often, stores will hold the item that long under your name. This is the best option for your conscience and wallet.

It can be hard to say “no” during this time of year, so instead, think of it as saying “yes” to a sense of control. Start a monthly holiday spending budget for 2016 now. Automatic payments of $75 a month could help you feel less stringent next year.

(Dr. White is a pediatric psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the developmental health consultant for Europe Regional Medical Command. She specializes in healthy habits across the lifespan and evaluating developmental disorders.)