As the holiday season unfolds, the allure of festive spending, enticing Black Friday deals and the thrill of shopping can often lead to impulsive purchases, putting a strain on budgets and mental well-being.
Reining in impulse shopping during the holidays can pose a challenge for many Canadians, especially with the convenience of buying a discounted laptop or air fryer from the comfort of their couch. But there are ways to help control spending, according to experts.
“Impulse buying absolutely goes up during the holidays,” explained Carrie Rattle, financial therapist and CEO of Behavioral Cents. “The more advertising there is, the more it wears down your willpower. You see it over and over and start thinking ‘I guess I should get this, everybody else must be getting it’.”
Black Friday and Cyber Monday stand out as two of the busiest shopping days in the year, according to the Retail Council of Canada.
While the official start of the two shopping days is still yet to arrive, several sales have already kicked off days and even weeks in advance, exposing consumers to a plethora of deals and advertisements.
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Cheryl Thompson, associate professor at the School of Performance at Toronto Metropolitan University, said she believes Black Friday sales started earlier this year and are more aggressive, because of consumer recession and pressure from inflation.
“You feel the anxiety of the retailer, which is which is really a sign of our times,” she said.
Rattle warned heightened advertising combined with the stress of the holiday season can lead to emotional buying — a quick dopamine surge — even though some deals may not be worth it.
“I refer to Black Friday as an emotional frenzy with very few real deals,” she said. “Usually it’s up to 20 per cent off, but the items you want, are they actually 20 per cent off? Your emotional brain overrides the logical side of your brain in these cases.”
For example, she said products marketed as “most popular,” “must-have,” or “essential for decorating” are strategically branded to instill in consumers the belief that they should conform to the crowd.
Consumers may not need the item that is advertised on sale, Rattle explained, but because everyone else has it, people may feel pressure to buy.
“Retail knows this. They use these triggered phases,” she said. “They are getting you to compare yourself to others, and make you feel less-than if you do not buy. It’s incredible the manipulative psychology” she said.
Online shopping and impulse buying
The tendency for impulse buying intensifies during holiday spending, especially when shopping online, Rattle warned, adding there are several reasons behind this.
In the context of targeted advertisements, she explained that if someone visits an online store, and adds items to their cart, but doesn’t complete the purchase, the ads seem to follow them everywhere they go on the internet.
“Those ads are stalking you,” she said. “You decided to say, ‘I want to think about it’ by putting the item in your car. But you’re being stalked into, ‘No, no, no. Don’t think about it, buy, buy, buy.”
There is also the ease of payment that causes a frictionless transaction when online shopping, especially when some companies offer “buy now and pay later,” options, she added. This is when customers can make large purchases and pay them off in installments over time.
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But these additional payments can pose a serious threat to people’s financial goals, though they may seem like attractive offers initially.
Emotional buying also tends to kick in when you’re browsing online, especially at the end of a stressful day, Rattle said.
“You think, ‘I’m run down, I’m tired, I’m browsing to self-soothe’ and then it’s so easy to just click and buy,” she explained.
How to protect you wallet, mental health
Even in the midst of seemingly relentless Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, there are strategies to maintain control over your spending and safeguard your mental well-being during the holiday season.
The first step is to plan ahead with a list of what you need plus a budget.
“You have to budget, you can just be willy-nilly with your money,” Thompson said. “And make a list of ‘absolutely must have’ and ‘would be nice to have’ and distinguish those lists. Because they’re not the same thing. You have to eat. You don’t have to get that 50-inch flat-screen TV.”
Given that shopping can trigger addictive behaviour, Thompson recommends being mindful when spending. Recognizing your triggers and setting clear limits is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with shopping, she said.
“When you have that bill come in January, set up an automatic payment where you don’t even have to think of it, and before you know it, the debt is gone,” she said. “Plan to set aside a certain percentage of your income to that debt, so that when it does come you don’t panic when you see it and think, ‘oh my gosh, how am I going to pay this?’”
Rattle also suggested a helpful tip: consider condensing all your online shopping into a designated once-a-week session.
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Allowing items to stay in your cart for a period of time helps people mull over choices, providing ample time to contemplate whether the product is necessary, she said.
“And then when you go in once a week, you’re less tempted to go down the rabbit hole, your emotions are calmer, you’re in a more rational mode and you can decide if everything is in there is what you want. Plus, you get to see the total when you buy things one at a time,” she said.
A third tip that Rattle recommends during the holidays is managing your own stress so your wallet does not suffer. When people are worn down, they are vulnerable and more persuaded to buy more, she warned. This includes prioritizing sleep, finding moments of quiet time, and ensuring you’re exercising and eating healthy.
Additionally, when feeling overwhelmed in a store or a mall while holiday shopping, Rattle recommends taking a moment to step aside and practice five slow breaths, which can effectively manage emotions and relax the body.
“Understand your own emotions because when you are shopping and your life is really busy, part of buying is appeasing your own emotions,” she said. “If you are going through a heightened emotional situation where you’re tired, under pressure or run down, you are just pulling out your card, not thinking about it.”
— With files from the Canadian Press
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