Five strategies to keep holiday spending under control

Here’s a hint: One planned splurge may shut down other impulse buys

For the last eight months, many of us have spent less money and much less time with family and friends because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. With a vaccine still in clinical trials, mental health experts worry that one in five Americans may be suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression, in part because of the fears associated with the novel coronavirus.

“There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty right now,” says Maggie Baker, Ph.D., a psychologist, financial therapist and author. “It feels as if there is not firm ground or safety. Within that context, the impulse to make yourself feel better somehow is very strong, particularly in the evening and particularly with online shopping.”

When you are in a funk, it’s human nature to seek ways to make yourself feel better. For most people, buying something is scientifically proven to give your brain a little boost… at least for a few minutes.

With so much angst already at play, how can we do the holidays without going overboard?

Set strategic goals

Before you spend again, Baker says it’s important to figure out exactly what your primary goals are for the holidays. Dig deep during this process. You may be surprised to find that your top goals have nothing to do with buying more things your friends and family don’t want or need.

While it’s nice to meet other people’s expectations and to follow through with obligations, she notes, your main goal could very well be letting people know you really care about them and then trying to reach out safely. Another goal could be maintaining or beginning holiday traditions that focus on time spent with loved ones.

Map out a plan

Once you establish your top goals, you can map out how to make them a reality. If you want to see people you haven’t seen in months, decide if it’s better to reach out outdoors or meet people on Zoom or another digital platform for a happy hour.

If that means getting on a plane to reconnect with your children or grandchildren, research which airline safety policies you will be most comfortable with. And don’t forget to talk with your friends and family about whether their comfort level syncs up with yours. With a structure in place, you can have more room to relax and feel safe about what you are doing, especially if that means spending less than in year’s past.

Set spending limits with family

Ask your family and close circle of friends about their expectations for gift-giving this season. Millions of people lost their jobs and others had their hours greatly reduced since early 2020.

Baker, who wrote “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to do About it” has two adult sons. She doesn’t know the specific details of their finances right now, but plans to ask them soon about handling the holidays.

“I’m going to have a conversation and say ‘What would make you feel like you are on top of things and not stretched financially?’ She may suggest setting a limit on how much they should spend on gifts, she says, perhaps $20 or $40 each for their immediate family.

“Especially in uncertain times it’s so important to say ‘Let’s make more time for each other,” Baker says. “Love is expressed not through money but through personal connections.”

Practice gratitude daily

Reminding yourself that there’s always something to be grateful for is a good way to boost your mood without spending a penny. Making a list of things you are grateful for, especially right before bed, Baker says, can be extremely satisfying.

“People shop because they get little spurts of dopamine,” she says. Counting your blessings is a way to savor moments of positive emotions. “In that process you enhance and amplify the positive.”

Set aside money for a splurge

Giving in to temptation isn’t always a bad thing. Baker suggests setting aside a certain amount of money that you can comfortably afford and then spend it on something frivolous for yourself or for someone else. “You can burn this money,” she says. “Buy a totally indulgent thing with it and who cares? Something that will release the pent up energy of having to be so careful for everything during the pandemic. It’s a good safety valve.”

With reporting by Casandra Andrews

Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky