In a 2015 survey, nearly half of Americans said they felt pressure to shell out more than they could afford during the holidays.
While you might be angry with yourself for blowing your budget so early, this holiday overspending is not entirely your fault. Science and the retail industry are actually conspiring against you, says Mikelann Valterra, MA, a Certified Money Coach (CMC®) in Seattle.
“Shopping can send a shot of the feel-good chemical dopamine to your brain — the same chemical that floods your brain when you bite into a piece of chocolate cake,” says Valterra. Stores work hard to induce that sense of pleasure too, with friendly salespeople, festive music and holiday scents wafting through the aisles.
Psychology can play a role as well. “Many of us spend excess money because we’re trying to recreate a holiday of the past or bury the one we had and create the kind we’ve always dreamed of,” says April Lane Benson, Ph.D., author of "To Buy or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop."
Whatever the reason, here's a four-part plan to get your spending back on track.
Step 1: Face the Damage
Looking at your depleted budget offers you a chance to take responsibility and figure out why you went too far so you can avoid a repeat, says Benson.
“We overspend to fill authentic emotional needs, but shopping isn’t a way we can do it successfully,” she says.
Once you know what funds you have left, calculate how much you've spent. Depressed by the figure? There's actually a bright side, says Valterra. “Pat yourself on the back for how much [gift shopping] you’ve finished when others might be staring at a long to-do list,” she says.
Step 2: Determine What You Still Need
You know how much you’ve spent, so now, make a list of expenses you still have coming. This includes gifts, as well as money for travel or entertainment plans.
Brainstorm ways to cover what remains without having to spend more. Instead of buying new clothes for a holiday event, shop your closet. If you're hosting a party, make it a potluck or cocktails only.
As for gift-giving, rely on some mind tricks. Show up at the mall with a list and try not to stay too long. After 90 minutes or so, people become more prone to buying stuff, says Valterra.
Put a 24-hour hold on anything in your online cart. “The first time you see a great deal or stumble on a new site, it gives you that brain rush, but the second time you go, it’s not as juicy,” Valterra says. “The more rational part of your brain kicks in after 24 hours.”
And if you’re truly out of cash, don’t go back to the stores. “You won’t see the adorable wrapping paper that would complete your holiday ensemble. You’ll make do with what you have.”
Step 3: Get a Grip on Gifts
Take advantage of looser exchange and return policies this time of year. Consider exchanging some items you’ve already bought for something that costs less.
This might also be the right time to cash in your credit card rewards points for a purchase. Or try a gift card swap site like CardPool or Raise, where you can get gift cards at a discount that you can use to buy what you need.
If your budget is hovering close to zero, it's time to get creative. Instead of a physical present, go for experiences, such as a cooking lesson if you know how to bake or helping an older relative learn to use technology so she can FaceTime with family, suggests Benson.
Think of it as a way of establishing new traditions. If your group of friends usually hits up a fancy restaurant or concert, suggest that this year, everyone gets together for a service activity, like wrapping presents for a children's charity or working in a food pantry.
Step 4: Make Next Year Better
Sure, you’re going to be smarter next year, but you don’t have to wait one whole year to try again. During spring break, birthdays, grad/wedding season and more, "think about the long-term consequences of continuing to overspend,” suggests Benson. “Is the pleasure from getting a bigger tree worth the pain of credit card debt?”
Then consider setting up a non-monthly savings account — a special fund just to cover expenses that come up a few times a year — so you'll already have money set aside the next time a party rolls around. To do this, figure out how much you typically spend for the event and then break that down into manageable monthly amounts you can set aside. The goal is to have enough so that come next November, your holiday is already paid for.