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In December, many events and celebrations take place, and this can make spending seem attractive, even necessary. Plus, for some, shopping is a way to escape the grind of exams and papers. A mall full of decorations and piped-in music may be preferable to a musty, silent library.

Whatever your rationalizations for spending, going overboard can actually add to the season’s stress. Learn where your motivations come from, and how to manage your money, so that buying what you need, and a few things you want, will feel empowering rather than overwhelming.

Developing Financial Awareness

Conventional logic says that if you’re afraid of spending, you’ll spend less, but Frederick Brown, a personal financial consultant who has studied the psychology of spending habits for 40 years, says the exact opposite is true. “When you [have fear about money], you’ll actually spend more,” he says.

Zach B., a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, acknowledges that anxiety affects his spending habits. “You never know what’s going to happen in the future,” he says. “I guess you can call it a fear. I’m afraid, but aren’t we all?”
Brown agrees that the majority of Americans have financial concerns, but says it’s important to try and overcome fears because they have an impact on how and when we spend.

Manage Fear, Manage Finances
There are strategies for overcoming anxiety about money and examining the things that have led to your current financial management woes, says Brown. He suggests people use a Personal Financial Summary worksheet to record their financial facts. When you know where you stand, money feels more manageable.

“I once had a psychiatrist as a client, who admitted to me that he’d write checks without looking at [his bank] balance because he was afraid to see how much money he was spending,” says Brown.

This is a common issue. “The purchase of discretionary items happens out of frustration with something,” Brown explains. “You have to look at that frustration and understand what it’s doing to your pocketbook. If you can identify what has caused your current attitude toward money, it is then much easier to make an alternative choice.”

So, how do you overcome anxiety (or mindless spending) and make smart choices?

Avoid Seasonal Temptations

Winter celebrations, holidays, and gift exchanges can fuel the desire to spend in many people. Plus, you may want to shower those you care about with lovely things, and stores and companies hungry for your dollars prey on this.

You can ground yourself and fight temptation by using a few simple rules:

Beware of Sales
Reduced prices and “door-buster deals” can sometimes make you feel that you can’t afford not to buy. Remember, if you don’t need, or even really want something, then it’s not a good deal, no matter how inexpensive it is. Use these opportunities, instead, to stock up on things you know you’ll use—groceries plus household and school supplies for example.

Stick to a List
Identify what you need to purchase and to whom you will give gifts. Many families and friends pick one person each to spread the financial burden.

No matter the season, make a list before you shop. Prioritize; you don’t have to get everything all at once, and taking the time to compare prices across a few stores is a good idea. As soon as you find what you’re looking for (within the budget you’ve set), move on.

Think on It
Melody Y., a senior at Rice University in Houston, Texas, suggests walking away from an item you’re not sure about. She says, “If you’re still thinking about it several days later, you really want it. If you’ve forgotten it, then that’s an indication you didn’t really want it in the first place.”

Salespeople are Selling
Be courteous to people who help you in stores, but at the same time, don’t make a purchase simply because they went above and beyond for you. Their job is to assist and sell you something, but you don’t “owe” them anything other than a simply stated thank you.

Find an Alternative

If the urge to shop is still strong, there are several things you can do to resist and remain disciplined. Here are some ideas:

Volunteer
Shopping is sometimes about filling a void or “trying on” identities. What would it be like to be someone who dresses in designer duds or carries the newest tech gizmo?

Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, think about what you do. Immerse yourself in meaningful activities that are fulfilling and help other people. This will not only distract you from shopping; it will give you perspective, increase your sense of self-worth, and is a form of generosity that’s perhaps more important than bestowing things.

Exercise
Shopping, especially when fueled by anxiety or used to fill a void, can create a chemical high.  Try replacing it with physical activity, a great way to release endorphins without spending money. If you like group outings, sign up for a relay race, 5K, or team sport. You can also focus on another life improvement challenge, like learning to play an instrument, reading 5 books (for pleasure) in 5 weeks, or whatever else you’ve been meaning to do.

Take in Some Art
If shopping inspires your eye for beauty and helps you to keep  up with the “next big thing,” visit some museums and other cultural attractions. Take an architectural tour of your area, check out local galleries, or meander through a museum of contemporary art or science. All of these offer the opportunity to learn about what’s new.

Plus, leaving campus for a short while to immerse yourself in something absorbing can help your mind relax and rejuvenate. Many schools offer students discounted or free tickets to cultural institutions.

Understanding your motivations for spending, and keeping on top of them, can ultimately reduce a lot of stress. As Brown notes, “What’s required is an understanding of both the psychology and the practicality of dealing with money.”

Take time to understand these issues and you’ll better be able to balance getting what you need, and some of what you want, for yourself and others.

Take Action!

  • Explore your motivations for spending. Get in touch with what makes you want to shop.
  • Develop your financial awareness and a method for tracking your money.
  • Before shopping, make a list and set a budget. Resist “door-busters” and pressure from salespeople.
  • If shopping helps you relax, find free alternatives, such as volunteering, exercising, and visiting museums.
  • Offer friends and family homemade gifts and “vouchers” for your time. Thoughtfulness can mean much more than any dollar amount.

Here are more ideas for fighting the temptation to spend in excess:

Use a Subtraction System
Write down your limit for spending, even when shopping for gifts. Each time you make a purchase, subtract the amount from your balance. This technique will allow you to visually see how much you have left to spend. Once you get to zero, stop without excuses. Know that when you have more money, you can start a new budget and list of things you are going to purchase.

If you’re concerned how friends and family will feel if they receive a small (or handmade) gift, remember that they love you for you, not for what you buy them.

Shop Early, Shop Late
Planning ahead for things you’ll need can help you stick to a budget. That way, you’re not running out at the last minute and paying full price because you have limited time.

The same is true for gifts. As you go about your everyday life and visit stores, keep an eye out for things gift recipients will like. Integrate their cost into your regular budget, so you’re not slammed all at once when holidays roll around. Plus, you can find things on sale, and beat the mad rush in stores that can cause you to buy things that aren’t quite right.

Invest in Experiences
Buying gifts is great, but “stuff ” rarely lasts and trends go out of style. Instead, offer presents that are homemade and unique. Here are some free and low-cost ideas:
  • Videos from a shared event
  • Photo albums or picture collages
  • Home-baked brownies or granola bars
  • Spices or dry ingredients for cookies with a recipe attached, in an attractive jar (you can recycle one and cover it with fabric or paper)
  • Hand-written “coupons” for activities together
  • “Gift certificates” for help with weeding, cooking, baby-sitting, etc.
Shop After Hours
If you want to enjoy the eye-candy available in stores without temptation, try visiting your local shopping strip when stores are closed. You’ll get some of the aesthetic pleasure, but be forced to go home empty-handed. To avoid the online shopping siren song, unsubscribe from shopping and discount offer emails, and don’t allow yourself to browse.

Have other great ideas? Share this article on Facebook and post suggestions on your school’s Student Health 101 page!

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