Resist holiday overspending with expert tips

Debbie Carlson
Chicago Tribune

Overspending at this time of year can be a serious problem, leading to a holiday hangover in January, when credit card bills are due.

To prevent a buildup of shopping anxiety and binge buying during the season, shopping and finance experts offered some tips to help shoppers navigate stores.

Make a realistic budget. Courtney Jespersen, retail and shopping expert at NerdWallet, said the prime reason many people bust their budgets is they don’t think of the total cost. Holiday spending is not just about buying presents.

“You have to remember travel, the cost of food, wrapping paper, bows, greeting cards, all of it, so you don’t end up being surprised when you need to buy something,” she said.

Jespersen recommended taking advantage of online and mobile app budgeting tools. Two of her favorites are You Need A Budget, good for year-round budgeting, and Santa’s Bag, which focuses just on Christmas lists and holiday spending. These apps allow users to set budgets and log when they make purchases, allowing them to see their spending in real time.

Watch for retail subterfuge. Make a list of products to buy, and research prices ahead of time to limit last-minute shopping and impulse buying, say Jespersen and Brad Klontz, educational partner with Chase Bank and associate professor of financial psychology at Creighton University.

“The bottom line is that the retail outlets are set up in such a way to separate you from your money,” Klontz said.

Finding current prices from different retailers is as easy as entering a product name into an internet search engine. For shoppers looking for price trends, the website Camel Camel Camel is a historical price tracker for goods sold on Amazon, Jespersen said. It shows how much an item sold for over the course of a year and can be a reference to see how current prices compare with the past.

Retailers strategically place items in stores or target online shoppers with certain goods to encourage impulse buying. Don’t fall for it. Klontz recommends putting some time between when you select a product and when you purchase it, whether it’s walking around the store or putting items in an online cart but waiting to buy.

“Asking yourself questions about whether you need it stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control and judgment,” Klontz said.

Using cash instead of credit cards curbs overspending. Pretend your credit card is a debit card to prevent racking up bills online, Jespersen said.

Reframe holiday giving. Talking to family or friends about gifts may also reduce anxiety and the pressure to overspend, they said.

“It’s a good idea to talk early. That way, everyone can set a price limit, so no one person shows off and spends way more than you can afford,” Jespersen said.

Beating yourself up about overspending is counterproductive, said Klontz and Michael Liersch, head of behavioral finance at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Instead, step back from the idea of how much to spend, and think about why you’re giving a gift. That changes giving from being about how much money is spent to the intent of the gift, regardless of cost. And tell the person why you chose it.

“If you’re giving a gift to someone, make sure it’s accompanied with a narrative. ... Even if it’s as simple as, I know it’s something you might not normally spend money on; I want you to enjoy yourself. The narrative makes it more important to the person giving it and the person receiving it. It creates an alignment and connection,” Liersch said.