Every year, predictions about how consumers will spend their money crop up. Covering the most popular toys and the most wanted tech gadgets, these lists tend to push people toward a herd mentality rather than a thoughtful examination of their values at a crucial time of year.
PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that consumers will spend $1,250 each during the holidays this year, representing a 5 percent increase from 2017. Even in a strongly recovering economy, that’s a big chunk of change to lay out during one month of the year — and pressure to spend that money on things that will quickly be forgotten (or obsolete) can put a damper on the season.
Instead, consumers should approach the holidays with the intention of going off the beaten path and creating a holiday that will make them happy. Avoiding buyers’ remorse and downcast faces around the Christmas tree are both worthy pursuits during the holiday season, and consumers can have it all — if they’re intentional.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?
LendingTree found that a quarter of Americans struggle with post-holiday debt, and the same fraction experience regret about their holiday spending. Whether they failed to comparison shop or simply went overboard with buying the latest and greatest, these consumers feel a real sense of guilt over their holiday spending. (And those who threw elbows as the doors opened on Black Friday probably grapple with their own regrets.)
Worse, an Affirm survey found that 61 percent of people reported that holiday spending is a source of strife in their families. James Lenhoff, author of “Living a Rich Life” and president at Wealthquest, says that his firm sees holiday spending as a floor-and-ceiling problem. “The market had a terrible October, with lots of volatility,” he said. “It’s making people rethink how they’ll spend over the holidays and even plan for life moving forward, backing away from the market’s bad month. They’re better off than they were a year ago, on a higher floor, but that recent higher ceiling has them questioning everything.”
Getting spontaneously frugal — or recklessly splurge-minded — can take a toll on families and partners, resulting in stress and long-term tension regarding finances. Efforts to create a magical day of delight transform into handcuffs, making people feel they need to meet a specific standard or work against some of their usual spending habits.
Unconventional Ways to Make the Holidays Brighter
While typical holiday spending tips, like setting a budget or looking for sales, are helpful, they often don’t address the root cause of problematic holiday spending — or help consumers hit the “Reset” button. There are, however, a few ways to buck this year’s spending trends:
Ask “What we do want to do?” instead of “What do we want to have?”
Most big gifts go under the tree — and then out of mind a few days after Christmas, Lenhoff says. Rather than add another hunk of plastic that won’t get touched after a week, create shared experiences with the people you care about. Have the entire family — kids included — provide feedback on what they’d like to do during the holiday season: go to a winter festival, help a charity, join a choir together, take a ride on the Polar Express. “Ask your kids what they want from Christmas, not just for it. Kids are pretty amazing, and they’ll pick the right thing and be fully understanding and engaging,” Lenhoff explains. “Don’t make them feel like you’re running the show, and they’re just there for the ride.”
Shrink your shopping list.
Some people will be drawn to more thoughtful or intentional giving. Rather than try to come up with ideas for the 50 acquaintances you feel obligated to bestow gifts upon, think of the closest people in your life. Prioritize giving that’s meaningful to them. (Realistically, this number won’t total more than 10 for most people.) If you still want to recognize others and spread holiday cheer, write sincere notes of appreciation or bake cookies.
If your entire extended family is committed to an exchange among the adults, try to convince them to do a drawing so it’s a one-to-one shopping experience for everyone. Better yet, see if they’ll agree to kids-only giving or a group volunteer experience instead. After all, how many drones can one uncle need?
Resist the temptation to impress.
We’ve all done it: “If I get just a couple more gifts, they’ll be so excited to see this all waiting for them and really feel how much I care!” But a “couple more” inevitably turns into a couple more, then a couple more, and the end result looks like an attempt to make the giver feel good, not the recipient. Fight back against that impulse by zoning in on the one or two things that will be truly valued and not going beyond that. Remember that the standard you set this year is the one you’ll be tempted to meet next year.
Shift your brand allegiances to one extreme or the other.
Spending tends to pay off at one end of the spectrum or the other: You get great value from dollar bins and from high-quality goods. If you’re determined to go for quantity over quality, shift to a lower gear and hit discount retailers — in some cases, like standard earbuds, the sound quality isn’t discernible between mid-tier brands and budget brands. If you want to give a gift that will last a long time, spring for the name-brand camera.
A movement toward gift-free birthday parties is gaining traction, and the concept may have a place during the winter holidays. “When kids are surrounded by a stream of new toys, each one becomes less special. Well-meaning relatives want to see kids happy and fulfilled, but kids who get everything they want…take their material items for granted,” explains Amy McCready, founder of PositiveParentingSolutions.com. If nobody receives gifts, no one will miss them — kids and adults alike have a harder time feeling deprived when everyone else is in the same boat.
Rather than buy up every toy on this year’s “most wanted” list, consumers should go against the grain and head into the holidays with a goal of making them fun and regret-free. Both goals are absolutely possible, but spenders may have to adopt practices they’ve never considered. But as any tech baron could tell you, innovative change is how great things happen.