Updated on 12.20.09

Spending Choices and Deeper Psychology

Trent Hamm

Christmas has always been a challenging time of the year for me.

During various years, within a week or two on either side of Christmas, my grandfather (who I cherished) died of cancer, a great uncle that I was very close to also died of cancer, and one of my cousins who was exactly the same age as me committed suicide.

The Christmas season is thus bittersweet for me. There are so many positive feelings and memories I have about this season, but the memories of the final days of loved ones and of funerals and of people I dearly miss also fill the season. There are a few Christmas carols that, when I first hear them during the Christmas season, whack me in the stomach like a two by four.

Because of all of this, I often get really obsessive about trying to ensure that the Christmas season is really great for all of those around me – my parents, my children, my wife. The emotional mix of the Christmas season, for me, often results in me making spending choices that I wouldn’t otherwise make. I’ll choose wonderfully frugal gifts for some people, then I’ll spend far too much on a gift for someone else.

By the time Christmas finally rolls around, I almost feel relieved that it’s all over for another year. I also feel a lot of guilt and shame because I feel as though I spent far too much on gifts for others during the season. By February, I’ve resolved to not do it again this year.

Then November rolls around and the first snow of the year, for some reason, always makes me think of my grandfather. Then I’ll hear Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and the same cycle of feelings always returns.

I think many of us share a lot of conflicting feelings about the holiday season. It’s often an emotionally charged time of the year, with relatives coming together and sometimes exposing very raw nerves. It’s often also connected with a lot of memories of childhood and of people long since past. Add on top of that the fact that December contains the shortest amount of daylight of any month of the year (contributing to a bit of the winter blues in everyone) and it can be a very challenging mix.

For all of us, there are lots of emotional triggers in life (mine just happens to be Christmas). Emotions can flood out from an innocent phrase, the thought of a long lost friend, or any number of other things.

The trick is to remember that when your emotions are running rampant, it is very easy to make very poor choices with your money.

Over the last few years, I’ve really come to recognize how challenging the Christmas season can be for me. The biggest step I’ve taken to keep my finances under control this month is to simply do as much Christmas shopping as I can before the month even begins.

In other words, I do everything I can to separate my wallet from what I know will be an emotional surge for me. I minimize the reasons I might possibly have to go shopping for gifts – and for other things – as the Christmas season approaches, lest I wind up with a pile of poor spending choices brought about by a psychological crest.

What things are hidden in your psychology that cause you to make poor choices? Is it certain people? Is it a certain time of the year? Is it a certain thing? Whatever it is, there are many rewards – financial and otherwise – from stepping back, recognizing that you’re affected strongly by this thing, and doing everything you can to keep your money as far away from the situation as you possibly can.

Yes, it will still be a merry Christmas for me. The light in my children’s eyes helps quite a lot, and it’s a light that I’ve come to learn has little to do with presents or things. It has to do with a dad that lets them pile on in the living room.

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  1. Adrienne says:


    Thanks for sharing. It’s nice to get a post where you open yourself up to current mistakes (sometimes it feels like you have it all figured out now).

  2. karyn says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It was nice to have a post with a more “emotional” tone to it. I tend to make poor spending choices when it comes to my kids. Sometimes I see something that I just know they’ll love and sometimes I’m trying to assuage guilt over not giving them nearly as much as most American children have. This is especially true around Christmas and their birthdays. I try to tell myself that three nice gifts should be ideal (that’s what Jesus received, after all) but somehow I keep finding this great thing and that great thing. I shop early in the year but then I seem to pick up more stuff! Despite your losses around this time of year, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and enjoy the little ones!

  3. Bill says:

    I’m getting pretty sick of these “emotional” self-righteous posts about how you have a difficult life. Boo. Hoo. Grow a backbone and learn how to get your spending under control.

  4. tambo says:

    I HATE Christmas, have for years. Not because of money and the vast ‘spending opportunities’ but because it’s always a huge hassle to juggle the absolutely opposing ‘Christmas expectations’ between my husband (minimalist) and my mother (all out extravaganza). Fights abound, crying, screaming, manipulating, and two sides tugging me this way and that with plenty of guilt and frustration to spare. There’s NO WAY to win, no way to find a middle ground, so I just stick my fingers in my ears, bake cookies, and pray for it to pass quickly. I wish the calendar would flip from Thanksgiving right to New Years and spare me some anguish, drama, and fighting between people I love. I just want it over with and I’m hanging on til Saturday.

  5. Kate says:

    Have to disagree with Bill…these are the kinds of posts that keep me coming back (with apologies once again for the negative post that I did yesterday–wish that there was a delete button). I like them much better than the “calculating down to the very last penny how much you can save” posts (which could explain my strong reaction yesterday).

  6. Anne says:

    Geez, Bill. As one of my dear friends (from Iowa no less!) would put it “What a snotty-butt thing to say.”

  7. Bill says:

    @#3 Bill,

    That was a bit harsh.

  8. Posts like these remind us that you’re human and struggling right along with the rest of us. Thanks.

  9. chacha1 says:

    I have the opposite problem. I tend to not buy for anybody except DH, my parents, and my sister, and then I end up feeling a little guilty about neglecting others. I don’t do cards, either, so every time I get one I think, “oops.”

    On the sentimentality spectrum, I’m way down, like ultraviolet. This does make life easier in one respect: I’m not constantly dealing with emotional reactions to things. But then I do fear sometimes that I fail to express just how much I value the people in my life.

  10. Diane says:

    Bill, don’t be a hater.

  11. Shannon says:

    Just remember that there are millions in a far worse situation than you are. Be grateful for what you have…

  12. partgypsy says:

    Christmastime, I am very prone to overspending, trying to be “Santa” for everyone I love. I want my children to feel like they are being taken care of, that they are loved, and there is an abundance at Christmastime. At the same time, people on my side of the family are going through a rough time with unemployement or underemployment and I want them to feel good and not have a feeling of scarcity at this time of the year. If someone is having an especially bad time, I want them to have something to look forward to. There is no way I can separate my emotions from my Christmas shopping, because they are all tied together. I don’t have too much regret, because I enjoy shopping, wrapping, the whole experience. I come to accept that’s how I’m built. But I hope to keep to a better budget next year.

  13. Tammy says:

    I blew the Christmas budget this year…not by much, but enough to bother me just a little bit. My little girl is 4 and I kept seeing things that she would just love. I want to make her Christmas really special, and I got carried away. Again back to the cash vs. plastic argument, I think I track where my money goes better with my debit card, because my Christmas cash stash disappeared quickly, with people still left on my list. I think I am going to increase my automatic savings deduction so I have a bigger Christmas fund next year. Then I’ll have the extra cash to blow without the guilt.

    Someone at my bank had the idea of “Christmas Checking”…a free checking account used only for the holidays, with the same idea as my Christmas savings…you still can do the automatic deposits, except you can get a debit card instead of carrying the cash. It might work better for me so I can track where it all went. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

  14. DivaJean says:

    I too get caught up in holiday shopping and emotions. For the past few years, I try to have my shopping finishing up on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s really helped me stick to the budget.

  15. Johanna says:

    I made an emotional decision to move apartments earlier this year. My old place was in the basement, and sometimes during a heavy rain, water would get in and I would have to mop it all up. This would happen a couple of times a year – so, not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but really frustrating when it was happening.

    Sometime in the late spring, a huge rainstorm came through and made a big mess. “Never again,” I said, and immediately set out to look for a new place. Within a week, I had signed a lease – for a much, much higher rent.

    I don’t count this as a “poor decision” – I don’t regret it, I love my new place, and I was running a big enough surplus before that I can easily afford the higher rent now. But I do suspect that if I’d approached the situation more calmly, I might have been able to get a better deal for myself.

    But back to the original topic: It seems really sad to me that a handful of tragic events from a long time ago can ruin Christmas for you forever after. I hope that one day you’ll be able to work through your feelings and have a Christmas without the bitterness.

  16. lurker carl says:

    Haunting various holidays and celebrations with the anniversaries of deaths is a personal decision, strive to unlink those events. You must turn those negative feelings of loss and resentment into positives of love and compassion. Death becomes a frequent visitor as you get older, learn to relish their lives instead of focusing on the final moments.

  17. Auntielle says:

    I really appreciate you sharing this post with us, Trent. Know that you’re not alone; Christmas is a difficult time for many of us – for various reasons. I think your plan to do as much of your Christmas shopping ahead of time as possible is a great strategy. Separating the actual spending on gifts from the time you know you’re going to be dealing with difficult emotions greatly lessens the chance that you’ll feel any guilt from your gift choices and expenditures.

    As far as the emotional pain you deal with every Christmas, I’m so glad you have Sarah and your children to love and be loved by. Fortunately, there are a myriad of opportunities for you to create and participate in the making of the happiest of family memories for you all. Make each Christmas full of the kinds of experiences that are more treasured than any material gift you could give them. In the quietness of your heart, bless the loved ones who have gone before, and honor their lives by living to the fullest each day.

    Blessings to you and yours this Christmas, Trent. And thanks again for sharing.

  18. Leah says:

    Thanks for sharing. I have a different problem, but it still makes Christmas vexing. I don’t currently have a job, and the field I’ve been in for the last year and a half (switching fields) doesn’t pay well. So, I don’t feel comfortable spending a lot on christmas. However, I’ve got a really health emergency savings account. Between the two, I mostly end up feeling like a horrible person. There are things I’d like to buy people, and I would buy them if I just had a darn job. Sometimes I feel guilty for having the savings and not spending any of it — I’m trying really hard to make due on the bits and pieces of income I do have coming in, but it’s not like I don’t *have* the money. The worst is when my friends with good jobs but lots of debt (poor money management) buy me dinner while I’m home for the holidays. Yes, I make less . . . but my net worth is much greater than theirs.

    I like the idea of trying to separate your wallet from the feelings of the season. I do get caught up in all the Christmas stuff. Realistically, my boyfriend and I don’t need to exchange presents — we live together, and that’s present enough. But then I think of cool things he might like, and then I buy him something modest and wish I had spent more.

    I’m definitely looking forward to having a steady income at some point, but I hope I can still keep this tip in mind. Truly, it’s a fun and awesome thing to give gifts, but there are so many emotions that go along with Christmas that get wrapped up with all the fun stuff.

  19. Shelley says:

    This is the time of year I miss my Mom, my Grandmother and and my Aunt Rita the most, though none of them died anywhere near Christmas. I’m lucky in that I can do the things Mom did around Christmas, like putting up a great big tree (a fake tree I bought years ago with ornaments Mom collected since 1945), make hand-made gifts like super sewer Rita and cook big meals from scratch like my Grandmother. None of these costs a great deal. I have no siblings, children, parents, or grandparents, but I have a great partner and his children who come to us on Boxing Day. Like you, I’m always really relieved when the holidays are done, but blogging about my family’s traditions this year has really been a pleasure. Happy Christmas to you and yours, Trent!

  20. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Part of what makes The Simple Dollar interesting is that I have very different readers. Kate, for example, likes these kinds of posts. Other readers quite vocally like the “calculating down to the last penny” posts.

    I try to post a mix of things because I know different readers like different things, but also because I enjoy writing a variety of things.

  21. Auntielle says:

    Trent, I’ve also seen quite a few readers asking for more Food posts, and even mentioning hoping you’ll start a food blog. As much as you put into TSD, I can’t imagine you having time to maintain a food blog, but I’m definitely in with those who look forward to your cooking posts!

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