Before Eggnog: Holiday Highs, Lows, and the Simple Path in Between

by Kim   |   November 18, 2008

Holiday shopping may appeal to your instincts, but you can don't have to obey.

t's begun. The local drugstore is my gauge for the passage of the retail seasons: during the "Valentine season" (which seems to get longer and more elaborate every year), motion-activated stuffed bears wave their arms, croaking their orders to "hug me." It's impossible to walk down the aisles during "Halloween Season" without goblins and disembodied skulls cackling with ghoulish laughter. 

It's the cashiers who must listen to the robotic similacra of each holiday; they are the heralds for each holiday and also those that quickly banish seasonal remnants to the bargain bin. According to my observations, it's taken a couple weeks for the drugstore personnel to put up the accoutrements of the latest holiday season, so now save for a smattering of candy turkeys and a sale on canned cranberry sauce we appear to be in full-blown Corporate Christmas.

Of course, the advent of holiday decorations is supposed to cause a quickening in the blood like that mimicking the sap rising in the spring. While some people enjoy shopping year-round, others' hunting and gathering instinct does obey the signals agreed upon by in some shady central corporate headquarters. Many Americans, who might normally be act as conscious consumers, find themselves reaching for their credit cards at this time of year as if hypnotized, only to wake up in late December with a much slimmer wallet.

How does this happen? Before you blame food comas or too much holiday punch, think about the powerful chemical call to spend that marketers sound every year by plucking the same notes. This Is Your Brain at the Mall: Why Shopping Makes You Feel So Good is an excellent Wall Street Journal article about the brain chemistry behind the shopping urge. Scientists have monitored brain activity and discovered that the chemical dopamine, which is related to pleasure, may be released with shopping activity. Interestingly, dopamine is associated more with the anticipation of pleasure than the acquisition of a material good, which helps explain why the "high" you get from shopping is sometimes followed by a low of disappointment or outright "buyer's remorse."

If actually buying something is not the pleasurable part of shopping, and if the shopping high can distort one's judgment to the point of buying unnecessary things, how can you get through the holidays with your budget intact? The secret is to have a budget to begin with. If begin the holiday season without a budget you are more likely to impulse buy.  You can start by looking at your spending from last year, estimating how much enjoyment you received from spending that amount, and then looking for ways to spend less while optimizing the really fun part of the holidays. This is just one of the exercises available in our new revised Simplify the Holidays booklet, available for free download.

New Dream has plenty more good ideas for disobeying the cultural imperative to shop till you drop this holiday season. Look for more holiday tips and reflections on meaningful celebrations.