We’re slam in the middle of the Christmas nuttiness. Spend, spend, spend is the current motto and I don’t know whether it’s the coming full moon or simply the Christmas insanity, but people are acting crazy. I’ve seen far more people this year yelling at other people, pushing and shoving, flipping others off in parking lots, cussing at cashiers, and generally acting like fools. As someone who intentionally keeps Christmas small and intimate, I find all of this a bit disturbing. Fascinating in a strange, experimental kind of way, but disturbing nonetheless. If I didn’t have to go out to get groceries, I’d happily spend the entire month at home.
This insanity is good for teaching some fundamental money lessons, though. There is much to be learned by simply standing back and observing people at this time of year. Here is what I’ve learned this year.
A resolution is no substitute for not going overboard in the first place
I’ve already heard several people say something along the lines of, “I know I’m spending too much, but my New Year’s resolution is to get my money under control, so I’ll deal with it later.” The big plan is to compensate for the Christmas overindulgence by going cold turkey in January. It’s the same rationale applied to dieting with, usually, the same dismal results.
The Lesson: A resolution to “do better” with money later is no substitute for restraint now. By refusing to rein in spending now, you’re only compounding the damage that will have to be undone in January. If your finances are already out of control, going on a binge in December only makes things that much harder later and increases your risk of outright failure. The bigger and more difficult the mess is to clean up, the greater the chance you get frustrated and give up. Rein in your spending now and you’ll have a lot less to clean up later and a better chance of succeeding.
Physical stuff is never worth getting hurt over (or making a fool of yourself over)
I didn’t go out on Black Friday, but I watched the news reports of people getting pepper sprayed, knocked down, robbed, and shot and thought, “Is any of this really worth it?” I see people in stores cussing at the help, demanding that rules be broken just for them, pushing other people, knocking over displays, and generally acting like fools and I think, “Where are these people going to shop after Christmas once they’ve gotten themselves thrown out of every store in town?”
The Lesson: There’s a reason why, when someone’s house burns down, they say, “It’s only stuff. It’s not important.” They are so grateful that no one was hurt and they realize that that’s the really important thing. Stuff is just stuff. It’s not worth getting hurt over (or hurting others over) or making such a jerk of yourself that the police have to be called. Whatever it is you’re after will almost certainly be around after Christmas and there will be deals then, too. Even if you’re convinced that this is a one time deal, it’s still not worth sinking to a new low. Just relax, enjoy the holidays and remember that it’s not the stuff that’s important.
What’s “hot” usually ends up being disappointing
I watch people chase the hot deals or hot products as if their lives depend on getting this one thing. They stay up until all hours checking websites, they chase sightings of the coveted item all over town, they bully employees into checking the storeroom, and they pay outrageous prices on resale sites to get this special thing. Most of the time it’s all for naught because the hot thing ends up being a disappointment.
The Lesson: Don’t chase what’s hot just because it’s hot. Do your research and make up your own mind as to whether or not this is something you really want or need. Don’t buy it just because everyone else is. Chances are that this hot item will end up being a disappointment. It will break, it won’t have the right components for your needs, the kids would rather play with the box, or it will sit unused in your house. It’s “hotness” is no indicator of quality, fun factor, durability, or usefulness. Figure out for yourself what you really need and want and then go from there.
A few well chosen things are often better than piles of things
A lady in Target the other day was pushing two carts loaded to overflowing with toys. I figured she must have at least six kids, but when I overheard her telling her shopping companion that her one child would love all of this stuff, I almost passed out. Chances are, this kid will end up so overwhelmed on Christmas that he or she won’t even be able to process half of what was in those carts.
The Lesson: It’s been my experience that a few well chosen gifts are far more impressive than piles of random stuff. Quality over quantity wins every time. This is true for both adults and kids. Kids end up overwhelmed when there’s too much stuff and will typically just pick out one or two things that quickly become favorites while the rest is ignored. Adults aren’t much different. People are generally happier when there are a few things that they really want or can use under the tree. Each one is appreciated and used and nothing is shunted to the side.
Greed is unattractive
Sadly, this time of year brings out the greedy monster in many people. They clear shelves of hot items, they try to use coupons, sales, and deals in ways that the merchants never intended, they grab things away from other shoppers, and they want more, more and more and when they don’t get it, they get ugly. Many people brag to others about how they looted this store or got away with some pricing error, or used a coupon fraudulently. All this greed is unattractive.
The Lesson: Greed does not make you a better person, it doesn’t make you some kind of shopping guru, and it doesn’t make you a hero to your kids (or it shouldn’t). It just makes you greedy, pure and simple. Instead of grabbing everything for yourself and thinking only of what you want, try thinking of what you can do for someone else. Even if it’s only to slow down and hold the door open for an elderly person instead of knocking them over to get to a deal, it’s a step away from uncontrolled greed.
Buyer’s remorse is what happens when you don’t think
I was in Target on the Monday after Thanksgiving. As I passed by the customer service counter I noticed that the line was very long. It looked more like the day after Christmas. I had to think for a second, but then I realized that what these people were returning were the TV’s, game consoles, cell phones and other items that they’d bought on Black Friday. Evidently they’d gotten sucked into the hype and bought tons of stuff they didn’t really want and, now that sanity had returned, they were bringing it all back.
The Lesson: Buyer’s remorse is a direct result of not thinking. When you get sucked into the chase and you let the shopping rush take over your mind, you end up with all kinds of things you don’t want and need. If you’re lucky you can return them, although you’re still out your time and gas money. If you’re not careful, though, you end up stuck with a bunch of stuff that leaves you wondering, “Why do I have this?” The wiser course of action is to think about any purchase you make before you make it. Ask yourself if you really need the item, want the item, have space for the item, or will use the item. Be honest when you answer. If you can’t answer yes to at least one of these, walk away.
Tuning out the media often saves money
No matter what the season or issue, the job of the media is to whip us into a frenzy. We’re supposed to be scared of everything beyond our own front doors, awed by every new consumer good hurled into the marketplace, and deeply affected by things that have no bearing on our individual lives whatsoever. This is how they keep us tuning in. Sanity is best preserved by simply tuning out.
The Lesson: When it comes to Christmas, we’re assaulted with a daily barrage of “buy” messages. Everything from late October through early January is one long sales pitch. Commercials, ads in the paper, and even news stories are all about spending. The goal is to create a fever over hot items and get people into the stores. Listen long enough and you start to want things. You start to want to get in on the “fun” of shopping that everyone else is having. You start buying into the myth that the holidays are for nothing but shopping. If you simply tune out, you miss many of those messages and you are better able to find your own joy. You clear the space in your head devoted to shopping and you realize that spending time with family, engaging in activities like caroling, playing games, or baking together are far more fun and fulfilling than anything the mall has to offer.
For many people, Christmas is a time to blow large sums of money, not a time to reflect on money lessons. However, there are many lessons to be learned from watching the crazy behavior of other people. If nothing else you can learn what not to do by watching the lunacy unfold. Take a step back this holiday and watch what other people do with their money. Chances are you’ll be appalled and quickly reverse course.
(Photo courtesy of lalawren)