How to Keep Your Holiday Spending in Check

US News

In his new book, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, Baylor University marketing professor James A. Roberts explores why consumers overspend and how they can curb the habit. Just in time for Black Friday and the start of the holiday shopping season, U.S. News asked Roberts for tips on responsible spending, handling frugal fatigue, and more. Excerpts:

What inspired you to write Shiny Objects?

My whole life has been kind of focused toward the responsible use of money. There were five us in the family and we were given a roof over our head and plenty of food to eat. But we were responsible for everything else we wanted, spending money, car money, all that. After I graduated from college, I was a stockbroker and worked in a banks' consumer loan division. That's where I got an eye-opener as to people's irresponsible uses of money back in the early '80s.

[See 10 Things You Should Always Buy in Bulk.]

Later, I decided to get a PhD in marketing, and focus my research and interest in consumer behavior. About 15 years ago, I started studying compulsive buying, and then materialism, and then credit card abuse, and now I'm into self-control as well. I've been studying and trying to figure out why we spend more money than we can afford. Why do we believe that money and possessions can bring us happiness?

Why is now the time for a book like this? Do you think flash-sale sites and daily deals have contributed to this "shiny objects" concept?

It certainly makes it easier. And we can even go back further to the advent of the Internet, and easy loan payments, credit cards. It's not that that created consumer monsters in us, but it certainly accelerated the process with easy transactions with credit cards, and now with the 24/7, 365-day-a-year Internet. We've had spending problems and recessions because of spending problems long before the Internet. So that's nothing particularly new, but the Internet, and all these newfangled ways that we can buy things has really sped along the process.

[See Why I'm Shunning Groupon.]

Nowadays people are talking about frugal fatigue. They saved, they've done without, and now they want to splurge again. Is this a real phenomenon?

What we've found is, and this recession is no exception, is what's happened is we hear bad things, and we hear about people losing their jobs, and we pull back [our spending]. But every time there's a light at the end of the tunnel, we see some sunshine on the horizon, we go back to our profligate ways. If you look at every recession we've had since the Great Depression, people have said, "Enough is enough, I've suffered, I've gone without, now it's time to pay back. I deserve better than this," and then we up our spending. Oftentimes, we spend more money after the recession than we did before the recession.

Is frugal fatigue inevitable? How can consumers avoid this pattern?

It is not inevitable, but it's very difficult when everyone else is following the Pied Piper of spending. In the first majority of the book, I try to convince people that money and possessions will not bring you happiness. And once we have an attitude change, then we can go about changing our behavior. If I have to drag you to begrudgingly watch what you spend, and you try to get away with something every time your spouse isn't looking, it's just not going to work. That attitude has got to change before you see consistent behavioral change.

What if other people in your life aren't committed to those same financial goals? How can readers change their behavior when they're being pressured to spend?

There's a tip I like that's called a social contract. It's really nothing more than you and your spouse sitting down and trying to come to some kind of agreement on your financial goals. What kind of spending can we afford? But really more important before we can talk about what we can afford is what do we really want to do, why are we working? What can this money be used for? When people sit down and think about it, it's not so they can buy nice shoes and handbags, and drive big cars and live in fancy houses, it's really for financial security.

[See the Biggest Money Mistakes Couples Make.]

Americans in general are very hardworking people, but we've just become kind of lax at how we spend the money. And so, a social contract is merely something where you say, "This is how much we're going to spend on fun stuff, but this is how much we plan to save each month." What I think is the fun part about these contracts is the penalties if we don't follow the contract. That could be house chores. It could be giving up something that you enjoy. It could be giving a donation to a cause that you don't support. When it's in writing, it's much more real.

As we get ready for the holidays, what are some tips on keeping your holiday spending in check?

There used to be something called Christmas Clubs where people would figure out how much money they're going to need for Christmas, everything from presents to the meal. And they would divide that by 12, and put that away a little each month for next Christmas. And they wouldn't get much interest by the banks, but the banks would penalize them for taking the money out. And then in November, they'd draw that money out. Think about how much less stressful and anxiety-provoking Christmas would be when you have all the money already saved up!

The other Christmas shopping advice is just to sleep on it. I call it a 24-hour, cooling-off period. Salespeople know that a vast majority of people who leave the showroom will not come back. And so we know that. If we can use the 24-hour, cooling-off period to our advantage as consumers, we're just going to be that much better off because we have time to reflect. Some of these low-tech solutions to overspending are really some of the best.

It sounds like you're not a big fan of Black Friday or Cyber Monday?

The thing about Black Friday is that sales just get us fired up. And when we get fired up, our brains start creating or releasing dopamine and serotonin--these neurotransmitters chemicals that get us excited, and we make bad decisions. So if you can avoid that kind of party atmosphere, that pandemonium that goes along with shopping, you'll be better off. You'll be even better shopping on the Internet. You're going to be probably by yourself, you'll probably be a lot more rational than you would when you're chasing and struggling with other customers at Wal-Mart or wherever you're shopping to get all the bargains they have on Black Friday, and you may be better off just to be at home.

@USNewsMoney

View Comments (9)

Recommended for You

  • Senate fails to override Obama's veto of Keystone XL approval

    By Susan Cornwell WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate failed on Wednesday to override President Barack Obama's veto of legislation approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, leaving the controversial project to await an administration decision on whether to permit or deny it. The Senate mustered…

    Reuters51 mins ago
  • US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines

    Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday he had found one of Japan's biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, some 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II. Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the…

    AFP
  • France, Cameroon wouldn't take foreigner later shot by LAPD

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — A homeless foreigner shot to death by Los Angeles police was in the country illegally after serving time for a bank robbery but couldn't be deported because no country would take him, U.S. immigration authorities said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • 175-Pound Pit Bull Hulk Shatters Misconceptions About the Breed

    This dog just may be the world's largest Pit Bull. Only 18-months-old, Hulk weighs a hefty 175 pounds. He's also best friends with a 3-year-old boy.

    ABC News
  • U.S. may review 1959 airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly

    (Reuters) - U.S. transportation safety investigators said on Wednesday they are reviewing a request to reopen a probe into the 1959 airplane crash that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, better known as "The Big Bopper," and their pilot. The original investigation 56…

    Reuters
  • View

    Turkish jetliner skids off on runway (9 photos)

    A Turkish Airlines jet landing in dense fog in the Nepalese capital Wednesday skidded off a slippery runway but there were no serious injuries, officials said. Officials at Kathmandu's Tribhuwan International Airport said the plane with 238 people on board was coming from Istanbul when the…

    Yahoo News
  • Former marine reported killed in Syria

    A former Royal Marine has become the first Briton to be killed while fighting with Kurdish forces battling Islamic State jihadists in Syria, leaving his family "devastated" Wednesday. Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, 25, died on Monday in a battle with IS militants, a source in the Kurdish People's…

    AFP
  • 'Thousands' of Russian troops in east Ukraine: US envoy

    The United States' senior envoy to Europe alleged Wednesday that Russia had deployed "thousands and thousands" of troops to neighboring Ukraine. Speaking to a congressional foreign affairs committee, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland also told US lawmakers that Russia was flooding…

    AFP
  • NATO flotilla enters Black Sea for training amid Ukraine crisis

    A NATO flotilla arrived in the Black Sea on Wednesday to train with ships from the Bulgarian, Romanian and Turkish navies, the U.S.-led Western alliance said. Tensions in the Black Sea region are running high because of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia's annexation of the…

    Reuters
  • Mom convicted of killing son, 5, by poisoning him with salt

    WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — A woman who blogged for years about her son's constant health woes was convicted Monday of poisoning him to death by force-feeding heavy concentrations of sodium through his stomach tube.

    Associated Press
  • Survivor testifies about 2 friends stabbed, bound, drowned

    PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A man who survived being beaten, bound, stabbed in the neck and kicked into the Schuylkill River took the stand in a hearing Tuesday and described the night his two friends lost their lives.

    Associated Press
  • Iranian president says Israel 'greatest danger'

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday said Israel creates the "greatest danger" in the region, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against a nuclear deal with the Islamic republic. In a speech on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu said Tuesday the nuclear agreement US President…

    AFP
  • View

    Hello kitty and kitty and lots more kitties on Japanese island where cats rule (17 photos)

    An army of feral cats rules a remote island in southern Japan, curling up in abandoned houses or strutting about in a fishing village that is overrun with felines outnumbering humans six to one. Originally introduced to the mile-long island of Aoshima to deal with mice that plagued fishermen's…

    Yahoo News
  • Killers sought in deaths of 300,000 chickens in South Carolina

    By Harriet McLeod CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Revenge may be the motive for the killings in South Carolina of more than 300,000 commercial chickens worth about $1.7 million over the past two weeks, authorities said on Monday. Birds have been found dead of unnatural causes in 16 chicken houses at…

    Reuters
  • Americans Love K-Cups, but Their Creator Regrets Inventing Them

    Now it seems that John Sylvan, the inventor of the tiny containers, is firmly on Team #KillTheKCup too. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” said Sylvan.

    Takepart.com
  • Mexico nabs Zetas drug cartel leader 'Z-42'

    Mexican authorities captured Zetas drug cartel leader Omar Trevino Wednesday, dealing a blow to the feared gang and giving the embattled government a second major arrest in a week. The suspect known as "Z-42" was detained by federal police and soldiers in San Pedro Garza Garcia, an upper-class…

    AFP45 mins ago
  • Paris Hilton brother Conrad to plead guilty to plane assault

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Paris Hilton's youngest brother, Conrad, agreed to plead guilty to assaulting flight attendants on a trip from London to Los Angeles last year when authorities say he called other passengers "peasants" and threatened to kill crew members.

    Associated Press
  • Afghan forces kill dozens of militants in hostage rescue operation

    By Sarwar Amani KANDAHAR (Reuters) - Afghan security forces have killed dozens of militants in a military operation aimed at freeing a group of civilian hostages in southern Afghanistan, an army official said on Wednesday. Eyewitnesses said most passengers belonged to the ethnic Hazara minority, a…

    Reuters