Tighten up your holiday spending

  @Money October 26, 2012: 5:06 AM ET
pla 11 holiday spending

You can cut back on your holiday budget this season without coming off like a grinch.

(Money Magazine)

This time of year, you're bombarded with the message that it's better to give than to receive.

When the Visa bill comes in January, however, you may be wishing you were a little less generous. Last year 17% of holiday shoppers with incomes over $75,000 exceeded the budget they'd set for themselves, according to a survey by Bankrate.com.

Blame it on heightened emotional vulnerability, says psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"There's a lot of guilt and social comparison in holiday shopping," she explains, adding that people often compensate by exercising their purchasing muscles. What's more, "if you see everyone out having fun while spending, you mimic the behavior," says Mary Gresham, a psychologist specializing in financial issues.

Want to beat your psychology and that post-holiday hangover? Simply use these strategies to get the names crossed off your list -- without crossing into the red.

Before you go shopping

Make your list... Start with the maximum you want to spend -- in total -- this season. Then compile a list of all those you expect to buy gifts for and other stuff you plan to purchase (like food, cards, and decorations), suggests Mike Piershale, a financial planner in Crystal Lake, Ill. Divide the amount among your list.

Related: 10 steps to make a financial budget

Beginning with the total budget anchors your shopping experience, so you're less likely to look back with major regret.

...and check it twice. Don't love that you're left with $10 to spend on Aunt Dot?

Look for ways to cull your list. Call family members now and suggest drawing names for gifts or donating to a shared cause instead, says Gresham.

Black Friday survival guide

Do you participate in gift exchanges at work, say, or with your book club? Maybe this is the year to opt out. Or propose volunteering together or having a potluck.

Supplement with service. Rather than bust your budget, add something more valuable to the present you bought: the gift of your time and talents.

You might pledge to help your brother chop firewood, for example, or to babysit a cousin's kid. Create a certificate detailing the service and hold your recipient to redeeming it. Chances are, whatever you do will be the most memorable part of your gift.

When you're ready for retail

Start off right. Get a decent night's sleep, eat a good breakfast, and hit the gym before you go shopping.

"When you're stressed, you don't make good spending choices," warns Leslie Greenman, a St. Louis financial adviser.

Related: Holiday deals shaping up to be best in years

Take a day off from work to hit the mall. Fewer crowds mean less pressure, and less chance you'll be caught up in the buying frenzy, says James A. Roberts, author of "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy."

Take the long view. Run a retirement projection just before you shop. Or forecast the cost of your child's college education.

"Anything you can do to put yourself in a long-term mentality," says Roberts. You'll see in plain numbers why it's important to stick to your budget. Each time you're tempted to splurge, force yourself to think about what you'll give up.

By reframing the question as "'What am I not getting?,' you end up thinking over the decision from more perspectives," says Scott Huettel, head of Duke University's Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science.

Plan two trips. Buy a $1,000 HDTV, and suddenly a $100 pair of jeans looks like a steal.

"When you start out with big decisions, your brain has a harder time discriminating with smaller decisions," says Huettel. His solution: Buy smaller items during one shopping trip and save big purchases for another.

Hamstring yourself. You may say you're going to spend $50 on your sister-in-law.

"But the plan isn't binding -- unless you take an action to commit yourself," says Huettel.

The best move: Carry cash only. Leave credit cards at home so you can't spend more than you've got. Or buy a gift card, which allows you to spend exactly what you'd budgeted.

Worried that's not personal enough? Add that gift of service or bake a batch of homemade cookies.

Remember, says Gresham, "most relationships are improved by time being invested in them, not things." To top of page

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