We're at that point of the holiday season where the Most Wonderful Time of the Year becomes the Most Dangerous Time of the Year for your budget. That's the final mad dash to Christmas this week, when mindless impulse spending can tempt even the best-intentioned shopper.
Conventional personal finance wisdom is that you need to plan your spending and spend according to your plan. Make a list that fits your gift-giving budget and stick to it. Pay with cash so you aren't tempted to put extra purchases on credit. Also, sit up straight, eat your spinach, call your mother, take a brisk, 30-minute walk and floss daily.
Seriously, if Americans had the discipline to stick to a sensibly budgeted shopping list, what kind of country would we live in today? I'll tell you what kind: The kind that hadn't put a man on the moon, the kind where you couldn't get a heart transplant, and the kind where you couldn't download cat videos at 2 a.m. while waiting in the drive-through for a Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
That is, quite frankly, not a country in which I, personally, would want to live, especially if that country said I also couldn't get that Gordita with a side of nacho cheese.
Have a holly, jolly Chalupa
So, for the good of our national experiment in self-government and adult onset diabetes, we need an answer to the self-control problem that doesn't involve deciding to do the responsible thing. Fortunately, science has an answer, and that answer is that you should feel grateful. And not just for the existence of nacho cheese.
What science has discovered is that willpower is limited. Once you avoid grabbing the solar-powered corn dog cooker ("Folds for travel!") at Bed Bath & Beyond, then resist the monogrammed titanium nose-hair trimmer from Brookstone, your willpower is shot and you will definitely be going home with the Vera Bradley Swiffer pads. And probably pulling into Taco Bell, too.
Instead of fighting your impulses, David DeSteno, a Northeastern University professor of psychology, recently suggested in the New York Times that it's more effective to change your impulses. Research from DeSteno and others suggests that the perfect antidote to impulsive decision-making is cultivating a sense of gratitude.
In one study, people who wrote about a time they felt grateful and were then asked to make a financial choice nearly doubled their patience about money. In other words, you won't have to count your change if you first count your blessings.
An earnest attitude saves Christmas
This gratitude approach is perfect for last-minute holiday shopping, which gives us so many, many opportunities to be grateful, even if you are stuck in a glacially slow checkout line. Try these grateful thoughts:
■I am grateful that the U.S. economy is healthy enough to support $31.74 billion in holiday spending this year, even if all of that spending appears to be happening right now in this particular store;
■I am grateful that there was no sequel to "Ernest Saves Christmas;"
■I am grateful that Lululemon recalled those see-through yoga pants, even if the woman in front of me didn't get the notice;
■I am even more grateful that she is wearing underwear;
■I am grateful that the U.S. educational system has instilled so much advanced technical expertise in our young people that the seasonal temp manning this checkout station seems to be docking his cash register with the International Space Station;
■I am grateful that the blinking Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater from Aunt Erma finally died, even if putting it through the washer with the batteries in probably constitutes "assisted suicide."
So instead of making your last-minute Christmas shopping a battle of willpower, adopt a money-saving attitude of gratitude. You may even find the sense of abundance and simplicity this attitidue creates will extend to other holiday traditions. Take Aunt Erma's fruitcake recipe: I am gratefully simplifying it from raisins, glazed pears, Brazil nuts, figs, brandy and rum to just the brandy and rum.
With a side of nacho cheese.
Brian O'Connor is author of the award-winning book, "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese."