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: Early January brings a small flood of women into Erica McCain's financial services office near Cincinnati, Ohio. Many come to borrow against their retirement after bingeing on pre-Christmas sales.
The most recent holiday spending poll by Gallup shows that American adults expect to spend about $720 on gifts, up 3 percent from last year. That's between the $866 that was spent in 2007, right before the economic meltdown, and 2008 when holiday spending dropped to a recent-memory low of $616.
But while holiday spending reflects some economic trends, consumers often feel buyer's remorse following seasonal gift shopping. McCain said in her 15 years of providing financial services, she's seen a lot of women in her Cincinnati-area office who went overboard during the holidays, "spending money on items that won't even be remembered down the road."
"We live in a time that if we want something, most people just go get it. They find a way. I think it's imperative not to take shopping too far," said McCain, who wrote "Ladies with Loot," a 2014 book about women and how they spend their money. "I know people, women especially, who don't enjoy the holidays at all."
WalletHub just released a list showing the biggest states for personal spending overall, not just during the holidays. The top five include Mississippi, Idaho, New Mexico, Alabama and Utah, adjusted by income and cost of living.
"Blowing cash appears to be the new American pastime. Between 2010 and 2020, global spending will increase 43 percent from $28 trillion to $40 trillion, according to a report from consulting firm A.T. Kearney, and the U.S. will account for an entire quarter of the growth pie," the WalletHub article said.
Black Friday got its name because it's the day retailers expect to finally put their bottom line in the black, said Dan Cook, a professor of childhood studies and sociology at Rutgers University-Camden. He's also the former chairman of the American Sociological Association's section on consumers and consumption. For many of those who are shopping, he said, it will be Red Friday because they'll go into debt to make purchases.
He thinks that from a social and cultural perspective, holiday shopping — and especially the big-event sales like Black Friday — have an element of sport to them.
"For a lot of people, it's kind of a pursuit — pursuit of a deal that may or may not exist. There's an element of hunting, in the sense of capturing something. Capturing a moment, making something special about what are essentially mass-produced and globalized products."
Popular retailers typically carry the things they did before the sale, so there's not much of a new-frontier feel, he noted. What is fun for lots of folks is the hope that they'll find a deal.
"There's a certain element of thrift and a certain element of getting one over on the system, finding the better deal than someone else could get somewhere else," said Cook. "There's a skill involved in it, a cunning, if you know where to go first, which aisle, which outlet has it...."
And if you stand in line for one of five items the store has at a heart-stopping price, only to come up No. 6 in line, chances are good you'll be tempted to buy something to avoid leaving empty-handed: "If you can't get the 12-point buck, you might have to get the eight-point buck," he said.
Overboard and other no-nos
The more toys a parent gets little children, the less time is spent playing with each one, said McCain. It's simple point-in-time math. She challenges indulgent moms to name three things the children got for Christmas last year or even before age 10. Neither mom nor child will likely remember most of them.
"You don't have to buy a lot of gifts," she said. "Buy a couple of quality gifts they are going to remember and appreciate."
Better still, she said, instead of spending $100 on gifts, put half away into a college fund. If they don't end up going to college, it's a great car or first-house fund.
"That's helping your children," she said. "That's planting the seed. They may not love it at the time, but they will and they'll respect you for it."
She also tells elderly relatives to take some of what they were going to spend and put it into long-term care for themselves. That's also a gift to the children who will eventually provide care for them.
It's fair to ask children with a long holiday wish list to whittle it down to what's most important, said McCain, who added that plastic toys should not be paid for with plastic credit cards.
Buying something is not a bargain, no matter how inexpensive, if it's not something an individual wants or needs. Women particularly struggle with that, she said. She refers to it as shopping for your springtime garage sale. Much of what families buy because it's a great deal ends up being donated to charity or sold — perhaps to make room for more items of questionable value.
If she needs a DVD player and knows there's one on a really great sale, she's apt to buy it. But she doesn't also throw in the Blu-ray player and other gewgaws that are being discounted, too.
With a spending plan, shopping the big sales can be very rewarding, said McCain. Before she hits the stores, she's decided what she wants to spend on each person. Often she knows what she'd like to buy. She takes her list and sticks to it.
As a bonus, children who watch their parents approach the holidays with some planning and self-control learn to do likewise, she said. When children don't get those lessons and go off to school and adulthood and blow it financially, parents tend to blame them, when they should be shouldering some of the responsibility themselves.
Fun and caring
Shopping as a social event brings a lot of people great happiness, said Cook, who adds there's nothing wrong with that: "For some, it's part of Thanksgiving, to end dinner early and get in line to buy," he said.
He also notes that standing in the cold for hours to give someone something he or she wants may warm the shopper because it represents sacrifice.
"If you simply buy something that's easy to find and get, it doesn't feel special," he said.
If it's not handmade, unique or created by an artist, the special may have to come from sacrificing yourself by waiting in line, Cook said.
"If you trek through and put in the labor to find these things ... it's a way of demonstrating to yourself and others that you care," he said.
Parents spend a lot of time trying to show caring, from how foods are made to what gets packed into the lunchbox to what's purchased, one eye usually kept on trying not to spoil the child, said Cook. Sometimes, gift-giving is an extension of that.
The holidays also allow parents to put off agreeing to the purchases a child wants or even demands. With deferral is the promise that Christmas — and to a certain extent, Halloween and birthday — will bring the gifts the child wants.