John Kuczala / USA WEEKEND
All together now: Breathe. You’ve made it through Black Friday (or should we call it Black Thursday Night?) and Cyber Monday, but if last year was any indication, two-thirds of you still have some serious holiday shopping to do. As with any deadline-driven event, the closer you get to the finish line, the more stress you feel and the more mistakes you make.
Not this year. There are some surprising ways to avoid the last-minute overspending you’ll still be regretting in July. Here are seven things to do:
Think "life list," not Christmas list.
So, you want to buy a Kindle Fire for your teen and a ski mask for your spouse, but what do you want once the holidays are over? Long-term, are you longing for a lake house, college fund, kitchen renovation? You will spend less by focusing on those, says Baylor University professor James Roberts, author of Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy. “Any kind of long-term thinking will discourage short-term spending,” he says, noting that visualizing those long-term goals — make a picture of that new kitchen your screensaver — is particularly effective. Negative visualization is another of Roberts’ favorite techniques: He conjures up pictures of older ladies waiting tables or older gentlemen bagging groceries when he feels he is spending too much. It works.
Consider what you could buy instead.
A related tactic — one that works year-round, not just at the holidays — is to consider what else you could buy with the same money right now. “When people go out and buy something, economics says we should consider opportunity cost,” says Nathan Novemsky, professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management. “Consider what else we could spend this money on, and is this thing we’re buying better or worse than the alternatives.” Novemsky’s research shows that people typically don’t do this — but that doing so can be surprisingly effective. “If you find a gift that strikes your eye but costs 30 bucks more than you budgeted, if you remember what else you can spend that 30 bucks more on, it will help you stay in budget.”
Involve others and commit.
No matter how much — or how little — you want to spend this season, sharing that number with another person (spouse, friend) makes you more likely to stick to it, Roberts says. “It sounds kind of hokey,” he acknowledges, “but getting someone else involved makes you accountable.” Putting it in writing is key, he says. This is for two reasons. First, if it’s oral, it’s too easy to forget. Second, that written reminder represents a commitment. “Behavioral intentions are the best predictors of behavior,” Roberts says. In other words, if you intend to spend $500 total, you’re more likely to stick to that figure by writing it down than you are if you don’t set an intention at all. You can help yourself here by being as specific as possible. Make a list of whom you want to shop for and how much you want to spend on each person. “Dec. 2 isn’t too late to set a Christmas budget,” he adds.
Get more out of gift cards.
Here’s a holiday riddle: How do you buy your niece (or aunt or colleague) something from her favorite store for less money? Spend what you have on a gift card knowing she’ll use it after the holidays to get whatever she wants at 30%, 40%, maybe even 50% off. This also lets you show a thoughtful nod to where she likes to shop, without sweating what item to get.
Embrace impulse control.
A walk through your favorite department store during the holiday season is designed to be a walk down memory lane. The Christmas tunes trigger nostalgia in our brains, says Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed. “We always remember the past more positively than the present,” he says. “So when you hear those tunes, you subconsciously think about repeating that amazing time you had when you were a kid. It pressures you to spend.” The shiny objects on display don’t help, either. Stores want you to pick them up and buy them impulsively, says Wharton School of Business assistant professor Katherine Milkman. She says our brains have a “doer self” that is very active in the heat of the moment and a “planner self” that is slower to react and more thoughtful. By staying out of the mall, you don’t allow the impulsive “doer self” to take over. In other words: Shop online to save.
Shop (online) till you drop.
Don’t hit the computer (or your tablet) in fits and starts. Lindstrom says that if you are disrupted during shopping, you are actually likely to buy more. “What happens if I take you away from the computer is that when you go back, you want to wrap it up,” he says. “You make decisions in the moment simply because you want to be done.” That leads to overspending. Instead, he says, make sure the kids aren’t around, lock yourself in your room and give yourself two hours. You’ll be more productive — and savvy.
Think like a recipient, not a giver.
If you can put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re buying for rather than your own, you can end up ahead with your budget. First, Yale’s Novemsky has released a new working paper titled “Why a Frying Pan Is a Better Gift Than Flowers.” It points to the fact that while givers tend to think about presenting something that’s splashy, special, wonderful or new, recipients tend to most appreciate something they can actually and easily use. That lets you off the hook when it comes to buying pricey tickets for the national tour of Wicked in a big city 50 miles away; your recipient will likely appreciate less-expensive community theater tickets even more. Second — and even more encouraging — is a paper by two Stanford University researchers published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology called “Money Can’t Buy Love.” It shows that there’s no real link between how much you spend on a gift and how much the recipient appreciates it.
“There is a huge tendency to be very worried when you’re giving a gift,” says Wharton’s Milkman. “You think, ‘I need to spend what she spends.’ Gift givers have a lot of anxiety about that, and it turns out Sally doesn’t pay attention!” What does Sally — or whoever is receiving the gift — think about? Whether the gift is thoughtful, Milkman says. Think about that: It means you could take a treasured family photo and put it into a nice but inexpensive frame and make someone’s day. It means your niece may actually prefer receiving your top-secret cookie recipe than yet another cashmere sweater. You’re off the hook. Or to put it another (and slightly clichéd) way: It really is the thought that counts.
With reporting by Arielle O’Shea.
Jean Chatzky, award-winning journalist and best-selling author, is a contributing editor for USA WEEKEND. Her weekly personal finance series Money Matters With Jean Chatzky airs 8 p.m. ET on RLTV.