Three Tips for Spending More Mindfully This Holiday Season

Americans are predicted to spend $682 billion during the holiday shopping season this year. That’s a 4% increase from last year, and proves that our appetite for new stuff continues unabated. With all the so-called deals popping up, and the advertisers pulling out all the stops in their attempts to make us crave new products, it can be hard to resist buying at least a few things we don’t need.

One way to gain some calm amidst the storm is to make an effort to spend mindfully. In its simplest form, this means being rational and deliberate about how you choose to spend your money.

“Formal” mindfulness practice, via meditation or prayer, is traditionally associated with stress reduction and overall relaxation. But the benefits of such a discipline extend beyond lowering our blood pressure or deepening a religious practice. Being mindful can also help us make wiser, less impulsive choices.

As a dedicated meditation practitioner and a reformed shopaholic, I’ll outline some ways in which we can use the principles of mindfulness to help us curb our spending instincts.

Make a List and Focus on It

If you’re anything like me, it’s unrealistic to tell your friends and family that you aren’t going to be giving any gifts over the holidays. That would make me come off as both cheap and uncaring. I admire the people who go this route, but it’s not for me. I actually enjoy the act of gift giving, as long as I don’t go overboard. What helps me in this regard is making and focusing on a list.

Just as with grocery shopping, it’s easy to get distracted if you enter a store and don’t have a clear idea of what you want to buy. Lists allow us freedom to spend money on certain things while not being swayed by the millions of alternative options.

I like to keep this process as simple as possible. I write down names, and next to them, a few gift ideas for things I know each person will love (keep in mind that this doesn’t have to mean more stuff). I then spend the next days or weeks seeking out those things and nothing else.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

The advertising industry is relentless, and I’ll inevitably end up on a website thinking, “I know I said I was getting Aunt Patty a basic bird feeder, but for just $30 more I can get one made out of old growth wood!”

To shop during the holidays is to navigate an endless minefield of consumer goods, each of which can ruin your carefully laid plans. Referring back to your list when you get distracted can keep you on track.

This behavior mirrors the way mindfulness meditation practice is traditionally taught. When meditating, you choose an area of focus, such as your breath, and pay attention to just that one thing. When your mind wanders, you gently bring it back the sensations you feel while breathing. If you do that over and over, you build up your concentration skills and learn to focus without getting distracted. Just being with your breath becomes soothing in and of itself.

Similarly, referring back to your list, no matter how many times you get distracted, can help you focus on getting only the items you really want.

Appreciate the Present

Advertisements are fantastic at taking us out of the present. They offer visions of how awesome our life could be in the future, if we only had that new car. Or, they can make us miss the meals Mom used to make — then insist that we could make them, too, if we just bought that new set of pots.

This isn’t to pick on advertisers (well, only a little bit). These sorts of thoughts are happening all the time. Having your mind pushed forward and pulled to the past in the present is natural, but it can be harmful if it happens too often. It’s hard to appreciate what we already have if we’re constantly thinking about what we might become, or what could have been had we made different choices. Such thoughts can produce negative mood states, and feeling bad about yourself has been linked to an increased propensity to make impulse purchases.

It can be profound to take some time each day to reflect on the positives in the here and now. I think there’s a reason pretty much every religion and mindfulness discipline encourages people to do some form of “counting their blessings.” Studies show that practicing gratitude in this way can help reduce the allure of short-term gratification.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the rest of the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is filled with opportunities to get gratified in the short term, whether through impulse shopping or indulging in decadent food (it’s unsurprising that we gain more weight in this period than any other chunk of time). If you can incorporate a simple gratitude practice into your day, such as taking a few minutes in the morning to think about how lucky you are to have a particular family member in your life, it can go a long way toward helping you make wiser, more mindful decisions.

Practice Relaxed Diligence

As much as I believe in what I said above, I also know that even the most diligent list maker slips up. Something catches our eye, and we get it. Amazon’s “Buy Now” button can be irresistible at times.

If this happens, there’s no point in beating yourself up. That’s the whole idea behind the seemingly contradictory phrase that’s always popping up in mindfulness circles: “Relaxed diligence.”

It refers to how one can be focused on a goal, but not to the point that a desire for perfection throws off your whole practice. You need to be kind to yourself and realize that you’re only human. We are statistically more likely to make poor spending decisions when under a heavy “cognitive load.” The stresses of the holidays can feel like a crushing mental load, so slip-ups are bound to happen.

The goal of spending mindfully is not to be perfect, but to change your behavior in the aggregate. The very act of being aware that you bought something you don’t need can be a powerful way of building better habits. It’s the noticing that counts. If we are relaxed and unreactive in the face of our spending mistakes, we’ll be better prepared to avoid similar purchases in the future.

Summing Up

I’m agnostic about what your budget should be for the holiday season. Of course, it’s unwise to spend huge amounts of money if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or if you’re adding to your debt burden. But on the whole, how much you spend is not the main issue.

The goal is to avoid being tricked, cajoled, shamed, nudged, or unduly influenced in any way into buying something you don’t want or need. By staying focused on a list, allowing leeway for mistakes, and appreciating what you already have, you’ll be well on your way to a more sane holiday shopping experience.

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Drew Housman
Drew Housman

Drew is a former professional basketball player and a Harvard graduate. He is passionate about writing content that empowers people to improve their careers, save more money, and achieve financial independence. His writing has been featured on MarketWatch, Business Insider, and ESPN.

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