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Why we lose it on Black Friday

A new survey says 47% of us spend more than we can afford during the holidays. Examine your motives before you open your wallet.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 15, 2012 2:05PM
Logo: Gift (Brian Hagiwara, Brand X, Corbis)The holidays are emotionally fraught. From holiday carols in the stores to one-upmanship at family reunions, the personal and commercial pressures can make the weeks between Thanksgiving and Dec. 24 pretty ho-ho-horrific.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to buy gifts for family and friends, but there's a whole lot wrong with going into debt to obtain them. We do, though: A new survey from the Oxygen Network indicates that 47% of adults spend more than they can afford and 36% will incur credit-card debt while doing so.

Think about that for a moment: Almost half of us acknowledge upfront that we are going to bust our budgets. Probably more than half: We tend to underreport things that are "moderately shameful," according to psychologist Ramani Durvasula of Oxygen's "My Shopping Addiction" (Mondays, 11 p.m. ET/PT).

"I'm guessing that (up to) 75% are going to spend beyond their means," she says. "Some of them will be paying for it all year long."

Familial and social expectations make it hard to keep your wallet in your pocket during the holidays. The pressure is complicated and formidable.

But it's not insurmountable. Understanding why you feel pushed to overspend can keep you from doing so.

Giving = competing?

How many times have you heard the phrase "the perfect gift"? Usually it's in an ad, but sometimes we say it ourselves. The implication: By getting the perfect gift you demonstrate and/or earn love.

Or maybe it's "an extension of ego," Durvasula says, particularly in terms of a sought-after item such as the season's must-have toy: "I got it! I did it! I slayed the beast!"


"Perfect" giving can also represent keeping up with the Joneses -- especially the ones with whom you share DNA. If yours is a family given to extravagant gifts, you might feel compelled to keep up even if you can't afford it. (See "credit card debt," above.) Is the necklace you bought your partner as attention-getting as the car your brother plans to give to his wife? Are you less of a provider if your kids get only four or five gifts each versus the dozen or more their cousins receive?

"Those rules of competition were laid out pretty young in life," the psychologist notes. "(Giving) becomes a contest."

Here's the problem: Nobody really wins. Those who are overindulged develop a sense of entitlement. Those who overspend to stay in the game find the stakes are ruinously high.

"The financial consequences are going to last a lot longer than any good feelings," says David Tolin, a psychologist and Durvasula's colleague on the program.

How to end the madness?

The usual tips pop up each year:

  • Plan carefully. Make a list. Set spending limits. Shop with a friend who will talk you out of overdoing it. Don't wait until the last minute.
  • Scale back. Buy a few carefully chosen gifts instead of a bunch of cheap ones. Suggest new traditions for the extended family, such as having gifts for children only or having adults draw names. Contribute to charities instead of buying gifts for the people who have everything.
  • Shop wisely. Get the biggest bang for your buck by using price comparison websites and/or shopping apps. If you're an impulsive buyer, leave the credit cards at home. (And if you've got self-discipline? See "Best credit cards for holiday shopping" to get the most out of your spending.)
The reason these tips come up over and over is that they're very effective strategies. But they work only if you work them. Start by thinking about how you've done the holidays in the past, and how you (and your budget) felt afterward.

Identify emotional or social triggers. For example, maybe you'd planned to write your child's teacher a heartfelt thank-you note. But when you hear that other parents are giving the teacher gift cards, do you start casting around in your budget for an extra $25?

First things first: You are not required to give presents to the teacher. It's a lovely gesture if you can afford it. If you can't? Write the thank-you note.

For me, the trigger is music. As soon as I hear the carols I sang in the junior choir, I want to buy another round of presents for everyone I love. That's marketing at its finest.

"(Merchants) have spent million of dollars in figuring out how to manipulate you psychologically into how to spend more money," Tolin says. "Understand that most of us are powerless against that."

So are our co-workers, our family and our friends. Why not be a hero this year by setting a frugal example? Shop intentionally, spend locally, give thoughtfully. Celebrate the presence of those you love rather than count the presents they bring. Write that note to the teacher, too.

How do you resist the commercialization of the season?

More on MSN Money:

Nov 15, 2012 2:44PM

I have never been shopping on this day. You can get the same deals on any given day before Xmas, and for a month after it. I don't understand where the draw is to stand in a line.That's just super-entertaining.

Nov 15, 2012 3:10PM

I don't "lose it on Black Friday". In fact, I can't remember spending more than $200 on any Christmas for all the gifts I purchased total.


I guess that means I live within my means (which must mean I can't become a politician), and that I'm not a lemming (which mean I'm not the average modern American).

Nov 15, 2012 3:53PM
Nope, won't see me there....I will be too busy hunting and staying as far away as possible from the city.
Nov 15, 2012 3:13PM

Never wasted 1 minute of my life on this day. Can't beleive the amount of stupid people that swallow the savings B.S. hook line and sinker.


Also stores like MalWart put on a few items for a below cost bait and endanger peoples lives every year with the mob rush.


 Its nothing but a shame how low society has become

Nov 15, 2012 2:39PM

Sign of the times, corporate america taking over Thanksgiving.  Pretty soon black friday will be the new thanksgiving, ugh

Nov 15, 2012 4:04PM

OK, i've got 2 close relatives in retail.  They have to go to work in the wee hours of Friday AM, becase Walmart's opening at 8:00 PM Thanksgiving day,so their store has to open early too.

How can I put this?  If after gorging yourself on Thanksgiving dinner, you have nothing better to do that evening than go to Walmart, your life needs re-examining.  Seriously, your life must be pathetic.  Please get help.  Professional help.  Do it now.  Right now.

Nov 15, 2012 4:03PM
I plan on boycotting Sears for their underhanded dealing with the Chinese by shafting an American company on the patent rights on an adjustable wrench. I hope Sears goes under.
Nov 16, 2012 7:04AM
Looks  like most of the commentors here do not in fact "lose it". I know I don't. As a side job I sell things at the flea market. I see deals every week that blow Black Friday away. I don't have to get up at midnight (although the flea market does open early), I don't have to wait in line and I don't have to have a tug of war with some caffeine crazed hormonal women over a Furby.

As for how I do shop. I have a Christmas club where I put a little money away all year specifically for Christmas. Spent a few hours one day at work to line up what I thought were cool gifts online.

 Ordered up about $ 300.00 worth of stuff from Amazon and about $ 200 from a specialty food vendor, that covered the folks at work and a couple of things for some family members. The kids come home from college for the Thanksgiving break this week and they'll give my their lists - it's not much - kids are good about just asking  for a couple of things.

We'll order those up, and then I go to a couple of speciality food shops and buy a few tidbits for the stockings, and a trip to Kappy's for some wine and beer and we're good. Got some firewood to cut and I"m making a batch of Lemoncello, and that's about's easy if you have the right attitude and ignore all the commercial stuff and just do your own  thing......

Nov 15, 2012 3:52PM
yeah...would never fight the mob on thursday or friday...last year our best buy had a line over 3 blocks long,  some people camped out for a day,  and the ones who waited in line still had to wait when the doors opened,  as they can only have so many people in the store,  similar situations in other stores like Walmart,  and I live in a small town,  worse in larger population centers.  Alot of stores do not even let you order online either.
Nov 15, 2012 5:18PM
I think it's bad that people can't enjoy dinner with their families because of "black Friday"
Nov 15, 2012 3:33PM
Nov 15, 2012 4:48PM
i no longer engage in the retail madness known as Christmas.  now that my kids are grown, i do not decorate my house or buy gifts.  any gifts i give are handmade and only for my family.  Christmas is supposed to be a religious celebration, not a retail one.  the corporate greed for profit has robbed all joy from the holiday season.  hearing a soundtrack of holiday songs right after Halloween is beyond annoying.  i wonder how people who are not christian deal with it, i barely can.  and for those of you who care, the term "black friday" turns my stomach.  both of my parents grew up during the depression and taught me about the original black friday--that being the day the stock market crashed and the lives of millions changed for the worse in a severe way.  i believe in God.  i do not believe in santa claus. 
Nov 17, 2012 7:50PM
I avoid going anywhere on Black Friday--let alone going to a mall.  I actually start my Christmas shopping in January (when most stores are dumping last year's merchandise at deeply discounted prices.) I buy one or two gifts a month being sure to pay off my credit card completely at the end of each month so that by the next Christmas, I have everything purchased and paid for. I'm not wringing my hands and getting grey hair in January trying to figure out how I'm going to pay for everything.  Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are a joke anyway.  Most retailers jack the price way up on their merchandise so it appears you're getting a deal on that day. But don't kid yourself---they still make out like bandits!
Nov 16, 2012 7:52AM

Problem is I work on Fridays after Thankgiving.  I head to work past Target and Wal-Mart and other Big Box stores five o'clock in the `mourn and laugh as people fight for a parking  places, I see the long lines of people queded up at th doors waiting to get in.  They can avoid all that hassel and expense by shopping in July and August -- especially when the fall and winter stuff first hits the stores!  No, they wait until the last minute.  Sounds like where I work -- last minute.  All I have to do now is wrap everything and I'm done. 


Halloween was not one day old when Wal-Mart was cranking up the Christmas music.  They -- maybe other retailers also, mixed Thankgiving with Christmas music.  I just ignored it.  Singing in junior choir?  I wasn't that lucky.


So, while you're killing yourself to get in a store, I'll be laughing at you.    # #   #

Nov 15, 2012 5:30PM
I usually only buy for my 2 kids and husband, however this year I plan to include my step-daughter and her 2 kids to my shopping list.  My kids give me a wish list in September and I select a few items from it.  Besides the standard underclothes and socks they get.  I don't go over board with them or buy everyone I know.  I refuse to go into debt just for a holiday. 
Nov 22, 2012 1:40PM
The holiday shopping nonsense is all about profit, but that is why business exists is to make money, they call it capitalism.  The retailers will find ways to grab your bucks as long as you allow it, if you oppose it then you are free to stay home.  I am greatful for extra working hours as my low wage is better than no wage.  As for all the ones that bemoan the folks who have to work, yes I DO work retail (not Walmart), two low paying jobs, and I will work the holiday & every weekend, but looks like I am the minority of one, for me I am glad when extra work hours are available and I will take them.
Nov 15, 2012 4:09PM

Black Friday can be a lot of fun.  Especially when "supplies are limited" on some fad item, or it's on "sale" "while supplies last".  Go with a group, each carrying cards with numbers.  Score the more psychopathic shoppers.  High nines for abuse of their own children, but perfect tens require bloodshed.


Make it a family outing.  You'll be glad you did!

Nov 18, 2012 4:36PM
For all Americans who consider ourselves Patriots, please consider buying at least some Made in USA products, especially if you're buying gifts for the holidays. They are not as easy to find anymore, but if we can make a small effort we will be helping the country.
Here's a little help:
toys: toysculpt (dot) com
dirtkingusa (dot) com
maplelandmark (dot) com
bigplush (dot) com
cutlery:  cutco (dot) com
newwestknifeworks (dot) com
wool blankets:  faribaultmill (dot) com
wooden spoons: handcraftedwoodenspoons (dot) com
clay / pottery: burleyclay (dot) com
candles: mccallscandles (dot) com
pauperscandles (dot) com
barnloftcandles (dot) com
clothing:  billskhakis (dot) com
allusaclothing (dot) com
justiceclothing (dot) com
general merchandise:  choosemadeinusa (dot) us
vermontmadeproducts (dot) com
madeinusaforever (dot) com
many handmade (including recycled/repurposed) goods: uncommongoods (dot) com
(approximately 90% is made in USA; the artist and state is listed)

Nov 18, 2012 11:04PM
My plan is to go to my neighborhood grocery shop and purchase pre-paid gift cards.  This will help in two ways--1)  by only taking those cards, I can only spend what they are worth; 2) they are quadrupling the gas savings points when you buy the cards this week.  Saving 20 to 80 cents a gallon on gas will help with my budget as well :)
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.