"If I could work my will," said Scrooge, indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!" -- oh, you know who wrote it
Ahh, December. Here in New England, the first snowflakes have fallen, the air is crisp and fresh, the picturesque old town centers are decked with lights and wreaths, and everywhere you go, the air is filled with the sound of … endless streams of canned and bland "holiday music," so watered-down and tired that an IV-fed blend of Adderall, habanero sauce, and espresso couldn't perk it up.
Really, at this point, the American "holiday shopping season" has basically become its own holiday. It's a month-long festival of lights and sound and headaches celebrated with traditional rituals like:
- The Great Migration: A 45-minute walk across an enormous windswept parking lot to the mall entrance.
- Honoring Thy Neighbor with a well-thrown elbow in the kidney of the guy who was about to grab the last Nintendo Wii within 300 miles.
- The Music: Pieces composed hundreds of years ago with great care and reverence are sanitized, lamely swung (somewhere, Count Basie cries), and given new life as antiseptic, mood-setting Music to Shop By.
- The Feast: Fried bits of chicken soaked in sweet sauce (the native cuisine of Mall-Americans), eaten standing up in a jammed food court full of screaming children.
And, of course, The Spending … the incredible spending, the buying of ever-more-lavish gifts hunted down at great cost in the face of cynical artificially-induced shortages to present to ever-more-distant relatives … and the shock and awe as all the bills come due in January.
Avoiding the Ghost of Christmas Just Past
I can't help you with the music or the chicken, but being a personal finance writer and all, I can give you a few shopping tips to help make your post-holiday financial hangover a little less painful. No, I don’t know where Wal-Mart
- Make a list, check it twice, and stick to it. When you go shopping for gifts, go shopping for gifts -- not for gifts-and-hey-that-sweater-would-look-great-on-me, if you get my meaning. Work from a list you've prepared beforehand -- socks for Uncle Ebenezer, a new cane for Cousin Tim -- and don't add to it on the fly. As for that sweater, wait for the post-Christmas sales, or put it on your own wish list.
Stay out of "trap stores" unless there's no other option. Lots of us have a favorite store -- the one we can't seem to walk out of without buying something for ourselves. It might be Lowe's
(NYSE:LOW)or Home Depot (NYSE:HD)if you're a tinkerer, or Nordstrom's (NYSE:JWN)shoe department or Polo Ralph Lauren (NYSE:RL)if you're a preppie, but it doesn't matter: Going in there is a trap. The holiday season, when you're in a buzzing crowd and a big-spending mind-set, isn't the time to try to face down that temptation.
- Take care of yourself out there. Marathon holiday shopping sprees in heavy crowds are exhausting. You make better decisions -- around money and around everything else -- when your brain and body are happy. Starbucks is your friend -- this is not the time to sweat the $4 latte if that's what keeps you going. Rest often, stay hydrated, and don’t forget to eat -- but personally, I'd skip that chicken.
I've barely scratched the surface here. If you're feeling the need to put together a holiday shopping plan that you won't regret in January, point your sleigh at the Holiday Shopping feature in the online exclusives section of the Fool's Rule Your Retirement service. It's a whole collection of articles and resources to help you plan, monitor, and get more from your seasonal spending -- without giving yourself a headache. Best of all, you can read it for free with a 30-day trial.