Holiday Spending Hangovers

holiday hangovers

Holiday spending hangovers: What do holiday overdrinking, overeating, and overspending have in common? We can get stuffed in over our heads before we know it, leading to regret later. The holidays can test our temptation to overcelebrate. While holiday alcohol- or food-induced hangovers are commonly discussed, spending hangovers can bring about equal regret.

Thinking Ahead

To avoid regret, it helps to think ahead. You might call it an “awareness strategy.” What events are coming up that might bring about a temptation to overspend?

Nowadays, that strategy might start in October. Halloween is now the second biggest holiday for consumer spending after Christmas. What used to be a couple hours of candy collection with a homemade costume and a paper grocery bag is now practically a national holiday. Multi day trunk-or-treating. Elaborate costumes. Yard decorations needing extensions upon extension cords. On November 1, where does all the Halloween stuff go? In the attic, the garage, the storage unit, or the garbage? And what about the candy? Halloween often leads to sugar, spending, and stuff hangovers.

Next comes Thanksgiving, where we stuff ourselves with, literally, stuffing. Some then stuff our brains with football and TV. Some families stuff all the important conversations for the past year into a few hours at the table. The air is stuffed with emotions. And spending can often be a coping mechanism for difficult emotions. It seems all the Thanksgiving hangovers – food, football, TV, and feelings – start with stuffing.

And finally if you celebrate it, Christmas, the king of holiday hangover potential. Must-have new decorations, the tallest tree, fancy food, family gatherings, parties, gotta-get gifts, candy, cake, and alcohol all stuffed into a few short weeks. Moderation choices might start out strong. But decision fatigue can quickly take over. Come January, depleted bank statements and depleted emotions can bring on the same headaches as too much cookies and eggnog.

Thinking ahead to all of the opportunities to spend gives you a head start on avoiding regret later. Ask

  • What is coming up where I will want or need to spend on a holiday?
  • What does the spending event entail?
  • What are alternative ways to achieve my goal for the spending event?
  • Imagine it’s January. When you look at your bank and/or credit card balances, what’s a reasonable figure for you to be at then? Start with that as your goal.

Release Self-Judgment

Before launching into ways to criticize decisions before you have even made them, remember that it’s ok to splurge. It just takes a little thinking ahead, strategy, self-care and balance. Deprivation generally doesn’t work.

Mindful Spending Strategies

For some people, simply having a January bank balance goal is enough to help them stay focused throughout the season.

Others need more concrete ideas. Here are a couple:

  • Plan most or all of your shopping at one or two stores. Buy yourself a gift card for that store with the total amount you can spend that allows you to make your January goal. Ask for your remaining balance with each purchase. When the gift card is spent, you have made your goal.
  • The old-fashioned envelope approach. Withdraw the amount of cash that allows you to make your January goal. Put it in one or more envelopes, organizing by spending category. For some people, watching the physical cash dwindle is the best way to stay focused.

Keep Track

The gift card and envelope approaches are one way to keep physical track of how you are doing on your spending goal.

If you find yourself resisting or unsure about the idea of having a January goal, simply keeping track of your spending as you go can work, too, as a reminder to rein in overspending.

Weight Watchers has used this approach for decades. The best tool of the program for me was the daily journal. Logging what I ate every day had more impact on my diet decision making than any other single factor.

Similarly, when a group of experimental homeowners were given an electric meter next to their thermostat, they used 7% to 19% less electricity than those with outside meters.

So writing down what you spent each day can take the form of a note on your phone, or a physical notepad or journal.

Every bit of awareness can help.

Credit Cards and Overspending

What if you must use credit cards, or really like getting the points? (Although the points rarely work as well as cash back, but that’s another blog post.)

Using a credit card is like having the electric meter on the outside of the house. You never get to compare what you have spent to a predetermined goal. Additionally, psychology studies show that when used in stores, as the credit card is handed back to us it reduces the feeling that we have spent anything. Our wallet looks the same afterward.

To build spending awareness and still use credit cards, sign up for a daily or weekly reminder of your charges and the current balance. (Not all companies will do this, tragically.) Each day or week, transfer your charges for that period from your bank account. At the extreme, you might make 30 payments on your credit card over the holidays, but so what? It’s helping you avoid the hangover.

Public Service Announcement

And a final Public Service Announcement: if you’re concerned about hangovers of a different kind, you’re not alone. There is help. AA.org helps with all kinds of addiction. Al-anon.org is for friends and families of alcoholics or addicts. Or, call a local Certified Addiction Professional for more one-on-one advice.

See our Resources page for recommended books on the psychology of money.

Imagine getting through January with no hangovers!

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

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