How Not to Go Broke Next Holiday Season


New figure skates: $54. Bike with training wheels: $79. Xbox: $699. Digital camera: $350. Cashmere sweater: $118. Graphite golf club: $200. Ankarsrum mixer $700. Decorations, food and trimmings: $200. The look on their faces: priceless. For everything else, there’s your credit card. Well, not really. The look on their faces cost about $2,400 and blew our budget for the year.

Did we really have to spend that much? Of course not. Emotional spending can be a problem year-round, but, for a whole lot of reasons, we’re at our most vulnerable around the holidays. Research shows that there’s something called the “holiday blues.” Maybe our family isn’t so perfect. We’re not where we expected to be in our lives. We might be alone, or newly divorced, or simply at odds with our parents or siblings. Overspending on impulse purchases is a way to feel better until the guilt hits or the bill arrives, whichever comes first.

Then there are all those department store decorations and the holiday music that seems to follow us wherever we go and let’s not forget those TV commercials that begin months in advance. A lot of money is spent to convince us that everyone must have the latest toy or accessory or electronic gizmo. We worry that the big day won’t be special unless those expectations are met.

T’is also the season to please others, so we’re more eager than ever to show our love for our family and friends. At the same time, we may feel deep inside that our love isn’t enough. A small gift that says, “I love you and thought of you”, good; expensive present, better, we reason. Sometimes, we feel as though we haven’t given enough of ourselves during the year, so we make up for it by showering love/money at holiday time. The fact is that our kids and significant others are basically OK, and if they’re not, spending money on them won’t fix it.

how-NOT-to-go-broke-this-holiday-season-Another big spending trap: the old “One for You, One for Me” syndrome. I’ll be in Barnes & Noble to buy a book for a friend, and I’ll find two books I’d wanted to get for myself. It takes a lot of self-discipline to stick to my list. It helps to leave that gift for myself until the end of my shopping expedition, when I’m less impulsive and can see how much I’ve already spent on others. By that time, I’m usually too tired to make another purchase anyway. Or, I simply add a slot for myself on the list, so that buying one thing for myself becomes “legit.”

By creating a holiday-shopping budget and preparing a carefully thought-out list before you enter a store, you can curb your emotional spending and avoid the tears and fears when the credit-card bills come due.

Here are some other tips for making your holiday pleasures truly priceless:

  1. Be aware of what triggers your emotional spending.  Did you just have a fight with your wife or see a movie that left you blue? Good time to call a friend, listen to music, and do anything but go shopping.
  2. Bring a friend to help you stick to your list, just like Weight Watchers. If you’re losing control, take a break and treat yourself to a coffee. Keep shopping fun, and staying within your budget won’t get you down.
  3. Shop online for toys and electronics, so you’re not tempted by displays to buy more than you intended.
  4. If your child or loved one has his or her heart set on that special something, save for it. If you’ve put aside the money, it won’t break you.
  5. Go in on buying that expensive gift on your list with others. I bought my wife a fabulous watch for her 40th by calling all the family members and asking them to contribute to it as a group present. Many families also have a system where everyone shops for only one other person.
  6. Find ways to buy relatively inexpensive gifts for co-workers, teachers and other folks. My daughter and I used to make and decorate jars of homemade butterscotch rum ice cream sauce each year, and it was a favorite among teachers and the staff where my husband and I worked. (Search for “butterscotch rum sauce” on, or just put in “ice cream sauce” for other ideas.)
  7. Make presents yourself for at least some of your family gifts—stocking stuffers or small Hanukkah presents for nights two through eight.
  8. Create rituals that make you feel good about being together. It shouldn’t just be about the presents.
  9. Have a family discussion about spending for the holidays. If your budget is too tight to afford something now (you won’t be alone!), be straight and create honest expectations.
  10. Finally, remember, if your relatives turn up their noses at less expensive presents this year, that’s their problem. Shame on them!

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