The pandemic’s lessons about holiday spending

Among predictions for the 2020 holiday season, the pandemic is expected to set new records for e-commerce while straining delivery capacity. It also has people re-evaluating what really matters in their lives.

Every crisis presents us with opportunities. The pandemic has resulted in a jump in the savings rate, most of which is in accounts earning little to nothing. And the shutdown made many of us realize that we can get by just fine without some of the things we once viewed as necessities.

Now is a good time to start thinking about better ways to celebrate. Here are some tips for creating holidays with meaning that won’t leave you drowning in bills in the new year:

  1. Wants vs. needs.

Those slick Madison Avenue types would have us believe that we need lots of things, from the latest techno-gadget to that trendy new shoe. They tell us that we’re not sexy/successful/cool without what they’re selling. What do we really need? Stop and think about it and get clarity for yourself. And if you have children, teaching them the difference between needs and wants will empower them for life.

  1. Curb the impulse, break the spell.

Next time you feel the urge to buy something you hadn’t planned to buy, simply clench your fist or flex your bicep. Voila! The spell is broken and you can actually think clearly again.

  1. Wrap your charge cards.

Some financial advisors tell you to leave your cards at home to avoid temptation. I prefer to wrap my cards in my goals. Every time I take a card out, I see a picture or some words that represent a goal that’s important to me. I get the opportunity to stop and decide whether what I’m about to purchase is more important than that goal. If it is or it doesn’t undermine my goal, I might go ahead and buy it. If it isn’t, I get the satisfaction of knowing I’m a step closer to my goal because I chose to not purchase the item.

  1. Distinguish “big happy” From “little happy.”

The Big Happy for most of us is having memorable experiences and being with the people we love. That other stuff we chase? That’s usually Little Happy – fleeting and not very fulfilling.

  1. Be consistently, consciously grateful.

When we practice gratitude, our self-esteem is greater and we just generally feel happy and appreciative of many aspects of our lives. Because of this, we’re less likely to crave material goods to feed an emotional need. And studies have shown that having a grateful attitude actually enhances our ability to make good decisions.

  1. Create value comparisons.

Rather than falling for some marketer’s value comparison, how about setting up your own? Put a price tag on some things you really enjoy and value.

  1. Know your spending triggers.

Do you feel driven to buy extravagant gifts as soon as holiday decorations pop up in the stores? When you have a rough day, do you crave some retail therapy to feel better? When you’re out with old friends, do you order the most expensive item on the menu? Are you triggered to overspend in a bookstore, hardware store, or swap meet? Know thyself — and especially know your spending triggers so you can outwit them.

Right now — before we lose the lessons of the pandemic — is the time to double down and take the steps needed to gain control of your finances and set yourself up for a financially stress-free future.


 Pamela Yellen, who wrote this article, is an author (“Rescue Your Retirement: Five Wealth-Killing Traps of 401(k)s, IRAs and Roth Plans — and How to Avoid Them”) and a financial-security expert.