Something about the holidays just makes us want to overdo it — think cookie binges, excess glasses of eggnog and all those shopping marathons to find the perfect gifts.
But sometimes it's easy to overdo things even before the festivities really get going ... like when you realize December has barely begun, yet the smart spending plan you vowed to stick to is already tapped out.
If that's the case for you, don't feel alone. Many of us have trouble resisting the siren song of a sales app or the demands of loved ones who expect quality presents. In a 2015 survey, nearly half of Americans said they felt pressure to shell out more than they could afford during the holidays.
Parents have it especially tough: 62% of moms and dads say they spent more on their kids than they should have over the holidays, reported a separate survey.
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, points out 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, if you’re in over your head with weeks to go until the holidays actually hit, follow our four-part plan to get back on track.
Step 1: Face the Damage
Staring down your depleted budget head-on helps in a few ways. First, it offers you a chance to take responsibility for the damage and get a handle on why you went too far so you can avoid a repeat, says Benson.
Did you rely on retail therapy after a bad day at work or a fight with your partner? Were you trying to buy your way into someone’s heart? “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, if any, you can start figuring out how to maximize them and salvage the season.
So calculate how much you've spent — and yep, even that Santa hat for your dog counts. 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 already burned through, so now, make a list of what expenses you still have coming. This includes gifts you really do have to get, as well as funds you need to contribute for travel or entertainment plans.
Once you've mapped it out, brainstorm ways to cover what remains without having to spend much ... if at all. Instead of buying new clothes for a holiday event, commit to shopping your closet. If you're locked into hosting a party, make it a potluck or cocktails only.
As for gift-giving, rely on some mind tricks to keep you from opening your wallet too wide. Show up at the mall with a list and try not to stay too long. People tend to go into a zone after 90 minutes or so, and you become more prone to buying stuff, says Valterra.
If you’re shopping online, avoid setting up your account for one-click buying and put a 24-hour hold on anything in your 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 think you’re truly out of cash, don’t go back to the stores. Sounds simplistic, says Valterra, but it works. “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
One upside to blowing your budget during the holidays: You can 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. You also could swap that random home-store card you never used for something more practical.
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 make bakery-worthy pastries 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 to celebrate the season, 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. You're still getting together with your circle, Benson points out, but your budget isn't threatened.
Step 4: Vow to Make Next Year Better
Sure, you’re going to be a smarter spender next holiday season, but you don’t have to wait one whole year to try again. We’re looking at spring break, birthdays, grad/wedding season and more, when it’s all too easy to whip out your debit or credit card and get back in that same hole.
To avoid this next time, "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 hit you a few times a year — so you'll already have money set aside the next time a gift-giving or party occasion rolls around. To do this, figure out how much you typically spend for the holiday-du-jour and then break that down into manageable monthly amounts you can set aside each month for that account. The goal is to have enough so that come November 2017, your holiday is already paid for.
Also, it never hurts to re-evaluate your budgeting smarts—are you sure you have an accurate idea of how much you can spend and are divvying your cash up correctly? Refresh your skills by reading up on some smart budgeting tactics.