The holidays can be hard: cooking elaborate meals, facing frigid temperatures, making travel plans that please everyone.
Overspending, however, is too easy. In fact, about 48 million Americans are still paying off credit card debt from last holiday season, according to a NerdWallet survey conducted by The Harris Poll.
To avoid financial regrets in 2020, shop intentionally. Here’s how:
Understand why overspending is easy
Pressures and emotions run high
Ideally, your holidays are full of joy. But they may be loaded in other ways, like the pressure to buy everyone presents.
Gift-buying requires money, time and energy when you may already feel overwhelmed, says Los Angeles-based financial therapist Amanda Clayman. During the holidays, “we’re chasing a sort of emotional experience,” she says. Think: the love and happiness of a Hallmark movie.
Also read: Holiday scams to watch out for
But feelings of grief or longing may be more realistic. “This is a sad and lonely time for many people,” says Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist for Morningstar. Shopping (for anything or everything) can be a convenient coping mechanism.
Marketers play on emotions
“Retailers are quick to tell you that if you’re not feeling particularly in the holiday spirit, then the solution is a gift or deal,” Clayman says.
Retailers also play on your sense of identity through marketing. They “show the life you want to be living,” says Newcomb, author of “Loaded: Money, Psychology, and How to Get Ahead Without Leaving Your Values Behind.” You, too, can be the ultimate host, perfect Santa or unforgettable gift-giver — if you splurge on catering, buy every toy, or surprise your spouse with a Lexus.
“It’s not a coincidence that almost all the research on psychology and spending is in the marketing journals,” Newcomb says. “Marketers are highly aware of how deeply connected our purchases are to our sense of identity.”
Learn to shop intentionally
Acknowledge emotions and triggers
Recognize feelings, like sadness, and that they may lead to overspending. Plan to cope in another way, like calling a friend, Newcomb says.
Reflection can also help you outsmart marketing messages. “Get clear on your emotional goals for the holidays,” like connecting with family, Newcomb says. Ads showing people fulfilling your goal may provoke you to spend, she says. Recognize those loaded messages, and Newcomb says you’ll face “less of a subliminal pull.” Knowing your goals will also help you consider cheaper ways to achieve them.
Instead of everyone giving one another presents, swap names so you buy for only one person. Don’t forget the price cap. Newcomb’s family buys gifts for the children only. That decision “took a lot of stress off everybody,” she says, adding that the grown-ups cared only about spending time together anyway.
Make a shopping list
A list “makes the biggest difference in whether people shop frugally or not,” says Utpal Dholakia, professor of marketing at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. Identify exactly what you need or want, or it will be too easy to impulse buy.
Research products and prices
Once you know what you want, Dholakia recommends researching brands and features. Find prices at many retailers so you can compare, and search online for price history. Marketers research ways to position products and price them in compelling ways, he says. Your homework will help you determine whether those prices are actually bargains.
Be wary of markdowns
You’ll spot many items on sale that you want but aren’t on your list. Take a cue from Newcomb, who passed on a discounted sweater while shopping for a comforter. She told herself: “There are a thousand things in this store that are beautiful and that I’m not here for.”
Discounts don’t justify unplanned purchases, she says. Admire a product and its price, then move on. “If you bought everything that was a good deal, you’d run out of money immediately,” Newcomb says.
Skip the cart
Handle in-store shopping like a buffet, Clayman says. Like scouting the spread before loading a plate, peruse the store’s offerings before grabbing a cart.
Otherwise, you may fill it without reflecting. At that point, “you’ve already bonded with [the product],” Clayman says. “Putting it back feels like a loss.”
Give yourself time and space
Spending time apart from items you initially love is part of why the buffet strategy works. After circulating throughout the store, you may forget about them or lose interest.
Space and time are key, Clayman says. If you like something that’s not on your list, she suggests leaving the store and returning another time. You risk the item or its promotional price no longer being available. But around the holidays, she says, there are plenty of things to buy and deals to claim.
In many cases after leaving, Newcomb says, “the emotion cools, you think back and say ‘oh yeah, I’m glad I didn’t buy that.’”
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Laura McMullen is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @lauraemcmullen.