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Why We Go in to Debt for Holiday Gifts

Do Any Of These Sound Familiar?


Updated December 09, 2008

Many people feel the strain of financial stress around the holiday season due to holiday gift buying. Many more feel the pressure of holiday debt for months afterward. In fact, according to a 2008 survey from Consumer Reports, about 12 million Americans are still paying off credit card debt for purchases made last holiday season! And while more than half of consumers plan to make a budget this year, about half of those who made a budget last year went over it. Why are so many people putting themselves under financial pressure or going in to debt to buy gifts that they can’t afford? In my experience, I’ve found a few factors to be at play here.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Many people truly don’t realize how much money they’re spending until later — when the credit card bills come in January. If you’re unorganized with holiday shopping, it’s somewhat easy to not know how much to budget for each person, pay extra for last-minute shipping or spend more than you realize in other ways. Many people are unaware of their overall financial situation. They have no clue how much money to allot for holiday gifts, so they just buy what seems right at the time and pay for it later.

Gifts Are a Token of Love

In our society, it’s not uncommon to unconsciously — or even consciously — equate gifts with love: a nicer gift means you’re more loved. While there’s a kernel of truth to this — how much we care does seem to dictate how much we spend on someone — when buying for many people at once, it tends to multiply what we spend. Does this sound familiar? “I spent $XX on Billy, so I need to spend that much on Caitlin.” Pretty reasonable. When that starts to include spending a similar amount on all relatives and extended family, though, then you extend the gift-giving to close friends and neighbors. That is when things tend to snowball. We all want our loved ones to know how much we care, but during the holidays it gets tempting to go overboard with spending to prove it.

Giving Is Unselfish, Right?

While many of us find it easy to stick to a budget, or not spend extra money on ourselves, buying gifts for loved ones — especially children, who are so obvious with their delight and appreciation — can be tempting for the vicarious thrill it provides. How many of us have found ourselves buying our children toys that we only wish we had had during our own childhoods? The holiday season of giving provides the perfect excuse to do that a little more than necessary. The temptation can be there with friends and older relatives as well. Some people find it easier to do nice things for others even when being frugal with themselves.

Meeting Expectations

Maybe it’s due to our competitive nature, maybe it’s because of the media or maybe the cause is a little of both in addition to other factors. Whatever the cause, many of us feel high expectations during the holiday season. We feel pressure to create the perfect family gatherings, send the perfect holiday cards and buy the perfect gifts. It may seem like the ante is upped each year, or we may not notice if our standards — and the level of expectation we set in others — go up, but some of the holiday spending we see may be an effort to meet high expectations that we never think to challenge.

No Other Options, Right?

We may endure the stress of going in to debt, because we see no alternative — "everyone does it, we’ve done it for so long now, it’s just something to accept." The alternative — not exchanging gifts for the holidays — seems extremely Grinch-like, doesn’t it?

At a glance, the above going-in-to-debt reasoning seems to make sense; however, this year, many people have even less extra money to spend on gifts, and many others are looking for ways to decrease financial stress and try something new. In the interest of keeping stress levels — and debt levels — manageable, it may be a good idea to experiment with some new ways of spending less during the holiday season, while still retaining the giving, loving spirit of the holidays. Here are some holiday shopping stress relief tips (including how to create and stick to a budget), and cheap holiday gift ideas you may want to try!

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Consumer Reports: 76% Plan to Cut Back on Holiday Spending. Consumers Union 2008, November 6, 2008.

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