‘Tis the Season to Buy (and Buy)

Understanding the psychology of gifts and overspending
White woman wearing winter hat checks wallet while shopping

The holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year – and also the most expensive. With gift-giving added on top of the usual household budget, pressures can mount.

According to Peter Jackson, MD, a child and family psychiatrist and medical director of the Addiction Treatment Center at The University of Vermont Medical Center, “I see so many parents for whom the holidays are, sadly, the worst part of the year,” he says. “It can be really hard to navigate the social and commercial pressures that come during the holiday season.”

The heightened emotions that accompany holiday celebrations can also amplify the differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” whether in terms of material goods or in terms of feelings of love and acceptance. “From an addiction standpoint, there is a lot of risk around the holidays,” says Dr. Jackson.

There is certainly a risk of overspending, whether that’s in response to marketing messages or to negative emotions we’re trying to chase away with our credit cards. Dr. Jackson and his colleague, Marlene Maron, PhD, chief psychologist and manager of psychological services for UVM Medical Center, offer some thoughts and advice.

The Psychology of Gift-Giving

First, it can be helpful to understand our intentions when we give gifts, and to be honest with ourselves about our motivations.

According to Maron, “Some people approach the holidays with a wish to offer loved ones what they had and loved – or what they lacked and wished for – and as a result, they sometimes lavish children and loved ones more than they otherwise do throughout the year.”

Dr. Jackson adds that giving can, ironically, entail someone thinking more about themselves than about the person they are giving to – which can set us up for overspending as well as resentment.

“If you stretch yourself financially because it’s truly joyful for you, then you may carry that joy into the recovery period. But a lot of people are stretching out of feelings of obligation, trying to save face or trying to financially demonstrate their value in a relationship. Then, our giving is about self-preservation rather than the joy of giving,” he says. “When we equate the monetary value of the gift with our own worth, that doesn’t feel joyful; it feels burdensome.”

Lifting the Burden

Maron points out that many things that people find especially meaningful don’t cost a lot of money – whether it’s a small but thoughtful gift based on the recipient’s interests, something handmade, or the gift of time together through a shared experience.

Dr. Jackson adds that, for many of the recipients in our lives, physical gifts are actually far less important than other ways we might show them affection – such as physical touch, words of affirmation or acts of service. Psychologist Gary Chapman dubbed this concept The Five Love Languages.

“We assume others like to be shown love in the same way we do, but that’s not always the case,” Dr. Jackson says. “For example, we may want someone to have what we didn’t have as a means of alleviating our own pain from want or lack earlier in our lives -- even when that’s not what’s most important to them. Many of the other love languages are free, and in the end mean much more than a purchased gift.”

Shopping Smarter

For those holiday gifts that will be purchased from a store or online, our experts offer the following tips to help you shop smarter.

Don’t shop when you’re hungry (or feeling emotional)

Maron points out that, the same way it helps to avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry, it’s best not to shop when we’re feeling lonely, sad, or otherwise emotional. “The choices you make may be more thoughtful and appropriate when you’re not trying to soothe a tired and stressed state of mind or spirit,” she says.

Take your time; plan ahead and build in a “waiting period”

Planning ahead makes impulsivity less likely, says Dr. Jackson. Make your list, add up the total, and then reflect on whether it’s within your means. Maron adds that, particularly when shopping online – when the satisfaction of a purchase is just a click or two away – there’s no harm leaving something in a cart for a day or two, even though you may get an email “reminder” advising you that your items are close to selling out. 

Beware of marketing tactics

Both experts agree that marketing is powerful. As Maron notes, “there is a difference between a true ‘sale,’ and a mere decrease from an inflated price, and it is helpful to discern the difference.” Dr. Jackson, who is also the parent of six children ranging in age from 7 to 17, encourages parents to help kids see marketing for what it is. “Everywhere you turn, there are messages about what you should buy,” he notes, adding that some of the most powerful marketing comes from the credit card industry – which wants us to buy more, whether we can afford it or not. If you’re tempted to charge an item, he advises, “Ask yourself, ‘Am I willing to pay one and a half or even two times the price of this item over time?’”

When Shopping Becomes a Problem

Holiday gift-giving can also mask a deeper, year-round problem: a compulsion to shop in order to fill emotional needs.

According to Dr. Jackson, shopping addiction is not currently considered an official psychiatric disorder – but, like any other behavior, buying can become a problem when it gets beyond our control. “People can watch out for signs like persistent, unsuccessful efforts to stop or reduce the behavior, despite having an awareness that it’s something you want to change,” he says. “Any behavior that you continue despite negative consequences is a cause for concern.”

Dr. Jackson offers the following warning signs that your shopping may be problematic:

  • Spending more than intended
  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down; promising you won’t spend more, then doing it anyway
  • Needing to spend more to achieve a desired level of excitement
  • Preoccupation with shopping
  • Hiding the extent of your shopping or spending from a partner
  • Shopping as a means of alleviating distress

The last one is particularly significant, Dr. Jackson says. “It could be a red flag if you’re using shopping as self-soothing – for a short-term thrill – or if it becomes the repeated solution to a negative emotion. In reality, impulsive habits can make the negative emotion worse over the long term, because now it is compounded with another problem – in this case, financial stress,” he notes.

Final Thoughts

If you think you may have a shopping addiction, Dr. Jackson encourages you to seek out a licensed counselor with whom you can work through your emotional stressors. “Therapy and counseling are such an underutilized resource,” he says. “There are many ways to successfully deal with feelings of depression or anxiety, and therapy can be a huge help in finding what’s most helpful and most healthy for you individually.”

He also encourages folks to think about stress reduction – both financial and emotional – as a gift in itself.

“When we’re at our best, we can give our best selves to our loved ones. If we’re strapped and stressed financially, we can’t do that,” he says. “Sometimes the best gift we can give is to not put that additional financial pressure on yourself by overspending. And it’s a great lesson to children to let them know that you’re living within your means to take good care of the family in the long run.”

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