The malls are decked, peppermint perfumes the air, and you’re in the holiday spirit. However, your holly-jolly state may prompt poor money choices, from overspending to Scrooge-like scrimping. Why? “When emotion guides our money decisions, we set ourselves up to be disappointed or remorseful,” says Kathleen Gurney, the CEO and founder of the Financial Psychology Corporation, an advisory firm in Sarasota, Florida. But help is on the way: Real Simple found three women with typical (read: dysfunctional) holiday shopping patterns and asked experts to give them a reality check. Avoid retailers’ trickiest holiday strategies with these Christmas shopping tips.
The Big Spender
Liz Davis, 29
Public-relations representative; single
New York City
The Expert: Farnoosh Torabi, the host of Yahoo! Finance’s Financially Fit Web series and the author of Psych Yourself Rich ($7, amazon.com).
The Problem: The holidays make most people feel sentimental. But that wonderful feeling has wreaked havoc on Liz’s bank account, since it inspires her to overspend. Last year, for example, she laid out nearly $400 on a mug and a tray for her mom from a fancy china company on Park Avenue. “I knew it was expensive, but the china had Chagall drawings on it, and he’s one of Mom’s favorite artists,” she says.
On another occasion, Liz wanted to treat a good friend to something extra special, so she bought her a gift certificate for a pricey workout program. “When the holidays roll around, I just want to give back,” she says. “But it can get out of control. A swipe of the card will get you whatever you want. You don’t feel the dread until about a month later.”
Liz says that she is unable to pay her credit-card bills in full every month, sometimes paying only the minimum. “I tell myself I’ll get a big bonus at work in a couple of years and pay my debt off,” she says. “I do a lot of rationalizing. But I need to get serious about budgeting and saving.”
The Solution: Liz says that she gets a “warm and fuzzy feeling” when she goes shopping for loved ones. But that leads her to make troublesome financial choices, says Torabi. To quell that emotional urge, she says, Liz should schedule events around the holidays with the people she cares about. If she “rings in the holidays with, say, a night of drinks with friends,” Torabi says, “she might feel less compelled to buy them expensive gifts.”
Liz obviously enjoys grand gestures. Perhaps she could make a gesture that costs nothing: a gift of her time. “That’s one thing everyone lacks during the holidays,” says Torabi. Liz could offer to babysit a friend’s kids, for example, or help bake cookies.
Most important: Liz needs to put the credit card aside and use a debit card or cash. If she has a 20 percent interest rate on her credit card and makes only the minimum payment of $15 each month, that $400 china set could end up costing as much as $500 and take nearly three years to pay off, says Torabi.
The Impulse Buyer
Jovette Gadson, 35
Program adviser for a government agency; single
The Expert: Galia Gichon, the founder of Down-to-Earth Finance, a consulting group, and the author of My Money Matters ($23, amazon.com).
The Problem: Every holiday season, Jovette drops “insane amounts of money” on trinkets, cosmetics, festive candy, you name it. “Without fail, I buy extra gifts for family members—and myself,” she says. “Why pick up just one item when you can get a deal on two and treat yourself? Horrible logic, but I’ve used it many, many times.”
For instance, last year Jovette planned to go online and buy her niece a couple of T-shirts from her favorite college. But while Jovette was browsing the Web, she also picked up a sweatshirt, a DVD, and a tabletop game. Later she scored some goodies for herself while out shopping: a pair of makeup sets. “Holiday gift sets and gifts with purchase are a huge weakness of mine,” she says. Another time, a simple gift basket for her boyfriend wound up costing twice as much as she had planned. “I got caught up in the moment,” she admits.
Jovette says that she uses a debit card, not credit cards, for purchases, after having been burned by credit-card debt in college. However, paying with a debit card doesn’t prevent her from spending more than she would like to. And it does keep her from saving toward an important goal: buying a house. After the holidays, the first quarter of the year requires a “total financial shutdown,” she says. “I can’t spend anything, and sometimes I have to dip into my savings to pay the bills.” She adds, “I need to be more mindful of my holiday spending. I need to get a grip.”
The Solution: To put the brakes on Jovette’s spontaneous buying, Gichon recommends several strategies. For starters, she says, “If Jovette’s goal is to buy a house, she needs to keep her eye on the prize: Print out a picture of her dream house. She should carry it in her wallet and look at it when she has that impulse to spend.”
Gichon also suggests that Jovette try shopping with a friend, one who will help her stay on budget rather than encourage her to spend more. And if Jovette hits the stores by herself, Gichon recommends that she keep reading material in her purse to distract herself while waiting in line to pay. That way, Jovette will not be tempted to pick up any of the stocking stuffers typically found in the checkout area.
Jovette is smart to pay with a debit card instead of a credit card, but she should take it a step further and use cash whenever possible, advises Gichon. That way, Jovette can set aside a certain amount of money ahead of time and plan out a detailed shopping list that allows her to stay within that dollar amount.
How else can Jovette keep from buying all those additional gifts? “She should go shopping close to when the stores are closing for the day, so that there isn’t time to browse or to make spur-of-the-moment buys,” says Gichon. And what about spending on herself? “Even if Jovette sees something that she wants and it’s on sale, she should wait until January,” says Gichon, because there’s a good chance that she’ll forget about the item altogether.
The Sales Stalker
Dana Vento, 44
Blogger; married with three children
The Expert: Alexa von Tobel, the founder and CEO of LearnVest, a financial-planning group, and the author of Financially Fearless ($12, amazon.com).
The Problem: Dana is so into saving money that she runs a blog, PittsburghFrugalMom.com, which advises others on pinching their pennies. But she admits that she can get too sales-obsessed during the holidays.
Case in point: On Thanksgiving night, you won’t find Dana relaxing after a long day of turkey roasting. She’s on the computer in bed, huddled with her 16-year-old daughter, hunting for online bargains. “We start looking at midnight, pass out for a while, and wake up at 3:55 a.m. to get the newest deals,” she says. This, after a day of keeping an eye on her iPad in the kitchen and watching for sale e-blasts while basting the bird. As soon as the brick-and-mortar stores open, she makes a beeline for local deals.
Saving money is a good thing, of course, but with visions of coupons, rebates, and cashback cards dancing in her head, Dana says that she feels guilty if she ever buys a gift at full price. One year, she says, she had to break down and buy a Wii game console with no discount. When that happens, Dana gets stressed out, “because I know that with any purchase I make, there is a way to save money or earn while I spend,” she says. “I know it sounds insane. I take frugality 10 times further than I need to.”
The Solution: “I appreciate someone who’s frugal,” says von Tobel, “but nothing extreme is good.” Von Tobel suspects that Dana enjoys the constant bargain-hunting: “I think she gets a thrill from finding a deal. And it does feel good. But if she’s buying something she wouldn’t have bought otherwise, it’s not a deal.”
When shopping for gifts, Dana should have a predetermined spending limit for each person on her list. “Doing this will enable her to give herself a pass even if something isn’t on sale. As long as it’s within her budget, it’s a purchase that she can be proud of,” von Tobel says. Giving someone an item that he or she will cherish can be well worth paying full price.
Finally, von Tobel says, Dana should endeavor not to let money control her: “If she has negative psychic energy because she bought something at full price, that’s not healthy. Money is not to be worshipped and not to be ignored. It’s just a tool.”