You’re on a small boat in a wide river. The water moves calmly, almost majestically downstream. All around you are other people, each in his or her own little boat, and you’re all floating downstream. Some are caught in a little extra-fast eddy, moving downstream a bit faster. Others, in a calmer part of the river, float more slowly. But everyone is heading in the same direction.
But wait, what’s this?
Here and there you see a few people paddling upstream. One is a woman not far from your own boat. “Why is she working so hard?” you wonder.
Then, as if crossing a threshold, you hear the roar of a waterfall downstream. Suddenly, paddling upstream seems like a pretty darned good idea (though a few people are actually paddling downstream, as if they’d welcome going over the fall).
You don’t really want to risk the fall, but you’ve spent so much time just going with the flow, that you don’t really know how to paddle effectively. Your muscles aren’t used to the effort, so making headway against the inexorable flow of the water seems overwhelming.
Welcome to the holiday shopping season.
That waterfall you’re hearing? That’s where you spend way more than you should, more than you can afford. The rocks at the bottom of the waterfall? Those are January’s credit card bills.
Why We Over-Shop during the Holiday Season
As I see it, there are just two reasons, each with several aspects.
1. External Pressure and Manipulation
We live in a consumerist society. Consumer purchasing drives over 2/3 of our economy. To keep things pumping, you’re exposed to thousands of marketing messages per day, and anecdotal experience shows that this deluge goes into crazy overdrive during the holiday season.
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend about $730 billion this holiday season, and that’s without counting car sales, gas, and restaurants. This activity comprises 20% of the annual total and as much as 30% for some industries. This means that on a per-day basis, sales are between 20% and 80% higher during the holidays than the annual average. When you consider that fixed expenses are, well, fixed, having much higher sales in the same period of time translates to much, much, much higher profits.
Knowing this, merchants and their marketers exert as much pressure, not to say outright manipulation on us, taking advantage of everything they know about consumer psychology to increase sales even more.
They make shopping as convenient as single-click purchasing with free delivery; they separate the dopamine hit of purchasing a shiny new widget from the financial pain of having to pay for it weeks later; they entice people to spend more time in brightly lit malls, knowing that the longer we’re there, the more we’ll spend; they send you coupon-and-deal-laden emails based on what you posted on Facebook, what you searched for on Google, etc.; and they create fake urgency and scarcity triggers such as “door-buster deals” and “as-long-as-supplies-last” sales.
In our river metaphor, they’re the ones pushing your boat downstream with their paddles, to give their own boat a boost upstream.
2. Internal Mindset
First and foremost, we humans are social animals who want to feel like we belong. When everybody is shopping until they drop, it can be really hard to not participate in the mass insanity without feeling like a Grinch.
When everybody is shopping until they drop, it can be really hard to not participate in the mass insanity without feeling like a Grinch.
You may feel guilty for how you’ve treated your kids, spouse, other relatives, friends, etc. Maybe you don’t think you spent enough quality time with them, or you failed to invite them over for a party or family event. But hey, the holidays are your opportunity to assuage your guilt by buying extravagant gifts, right?
Finally, you’re so busy, that you’ve put off gift shopping until the very last minute. Then, you rush like a dervish from store to store, from e-commerce website to e-commerce website, buying anything and everything that catches your eye, without checking if there’s someone on your list for whom this particular purchase would be a thoughtful and appropriate gift, and for whom you don’t already have more gifts than you need.
In the river metaphor, this is your feeling like you can’t paddle effectively against the flow that threatens to throw you over the fall.
10 Steps to Ace Your Holiday Shopping
A quote attributed to The Reverend H. K. Williams says, “If you fail to prepare you are preparing to fail.” I prefer a variant, “Failing to plan is like planning to fail.”
Spending a bit of time to plan your holiday shopping ahead can save you a lot of time, stress, and money.
- Make a list of people you’re shopping for.
- Decide on your total gift budget.
- For each person, define what percentage of your gift budget you’ll spend for that person’s gift; apply that percentage to your total budget to come up with a budget for that person’s gift (for extra credit, reduce each budget by 10% to give yourself a bit of a margin for those cases where you can’t find a good gift that fits the budget).
- Think of each person’s interests and the type of relationship you have with her or him, and then come up with two or three types of gifts s/he’d appreciate getting from you; now you have your gift-shopping list, with 2-3 alternatives for each person.
- Consider if some people wouldn’t appreciate even more if you would make or do something for them, rather than spending money on a store-bought gift; this is especially useful if you feel guilty for neglecting the recipient over the past year – you get the dual benefit of revitalizing the relationship without overspending out of guilt.
- Search online and/or in the sales flyers that hit your physical mailbox for gifts that match items on your list, and are within touching distance of your budget for the specific recipient (don’t be too strict – if you budgeted $50 for somebody’s gift and you find the perfect gift for $55, saving that $5 is probably not worth the additional stress and extra time you’ll spend continuing the search with no guarantee you’ll find anything better or even as good).
- Once you’ve identified at least one good gift idea for each person on your list, of a type they’d appreciate, and within your budget, do a bit of comparison shopping to see if you can find it (or something similar) for less elsewhere.
- Buy what you can from small local businesses – doing this supports your community and is usually less crowded and stressful than fighting the crowds at big box stores.
- What you can’t buy from small local businesses, order online, preferably with free shipping; this will reduce the time, stress, and gas money that you’d spend rushing to multiple physical stores.
- Finally, what the previous two steps didn’t cover, buy wherever else you found them.
In all cases, don’t stick around in stores and on e-commerce sites longer than you need to. That will just subject you to more temptation. If you do happen to come across a perfect gift that you didn’t think of before, buy it only if you haven’t yet purchased a gift for the recipient in question, and assuming the new idea doesn’t bust your budget.
The Bottom Line
The best way to ace your holiday shopping is to be strategic about it. Follow the above 10-step process to create your plan and execute it like a champ.
How do you avoid succumbing to the holiday season gift shopping insanity?
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