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How to avoid impulse spending this holiday season

By Andrew Housser

The holiday shopping season has been in full swing for several weeks, and everywhere, consumers are struggling with how to avoid impulse buys and avoid adding to their debt load. It is an uphill battle: The National Retail Federation has estimated that consumers typically spend about $100 on themselves during the holidays, in addition to their gift purchases. If you face temptation when doing holiday shopping — or at any time — try these suggestions for avoiding impulse purchases:

1) Make a list, check it twice

When planning holiday spending, make a list of every holiday expense you anticipate. Include tips, entertaining and travel, as well as gifts for family, friends, coworkers and others. Then add up how much that spending will cost. Rework the list as needed to make it fit your budget, and vow not to go beyond your list.

2) Plan for cash

Take your holiday shopping budget with you in cash. Bring along your list, and check off each person when you have purchased his or her gift. Resist the urge to overspend on credit cards — or leave the cards at home so you do not have the possibility of overspending.

3) Sleep on it

If you are tempted to buy something extra while shopping, it can be easy to rationalize the purchase. To resist temptation, bring along a notebook. Write down the item you want and promise yourself you will consider it in 24 hours. Often, you will find you forget all about it in that time. If you do decide to make the purchase, you will have time to work out a way to pay for it without going into debt.

4) Don’t touch

A study earlier this year published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people have a greater attachment to items they have touched — and they are willing to pay more to own them. Keep your hands to yourself, and you might find it easier to resist wanting to buy.

5) Take a good look at what you have

Spend part of a Saturday looking through your garage, basement or storage bins and you might be shocked at how much you already own — and how many belongings were impulse buys that you no longer use. For many Americans, these purchases add up to hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of goods. If you really want to inspire yourself, go through those unwanted items and sell them at a yard sale or on an online auction site such as eBay to generate some extra cash for the holidays.

6) Ignore catalogs and ads

If you did not look at the ads that come with the newspaper, the TV commercials that tell you how a new gadget can improve your life, or the catalogs that list all the helpful devices for your home, how would you know what is available? That’s right — you would not know about them, and would not be tempted to buy them. If you are not tempted, you will not feel deprived by not buying these items, and you can avoid running into debt.

7) Give yourself a treat

Many people find that if they never buy anything for themselves, the pressure can build up to the point where it results in a shopping “blowout” where they spend far too much – and go into debt in the process. Instead, plan for treats to blow off steam. Maybe you can afford a cup of premium coffee every few days, or perhaps you can allow yourself $20 every couple of weeks to buy a CD, book, fashion accessory or game.

8) Find non-shopping comforts

Many people “self-medicate” for boredom, depression or loneliness by going shopping — just ask anyone in too much debt. Instead, work to build other ways to find comfort. Try calling a friend, borrowing a movie from the library, learning to cook a new food, going for a walk or bike ride, playing a game with family, making a cup of tea or taking a hot bath as a soothing alternative to going into shopping debt.

9) Don’t worry about someday

Many impulse shoppers rationalize their purchases with the idea that “I might need it someday.” Will it truly be impossible to find napkin rings, blue jeans or bags of chips on sale at a later date? Probably not. Let “someday” work itself out when it arrives.

Avoiding debt can be challenging during the holiday season, but by being aware of your habits and staying focused on planned purchases, you can avoid overspending on impulse.


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