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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 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 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 2:39PM

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

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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.