4 simple tips to make it through the holidays with your credit card in one piece

businesswoman with tax report at office

It’s that time of year again. And no, I’m not taking about the actual holidays we celebrate. I’m talking about Black Friday, Cyber Monday… and still coming: Boxing Day

I’m going to take a guess that your inbox has been overflowing with “the best deals of the year,” “save 70% now before it’s gone!!” and many like this. 


It’s all so tempting. But when January hits, and your credit card bill comes in, all that excitement is replaced by anxiety, even desperation. That’s no way to start off the new year! 

So let’s talk about what goes on in your brain, with all these messages and buying impulses, and why it’s so hard to say No. And then I’ll give you some tips for working WITH your brain this holiday season. 

When it comes to gift buying, many feelings may come into play: generosity and excitement, sure. But there can also be guilt, feeling you have to spend more than you can afford to ‘fit in’, trying to keep up with ‘them’, denial ( I can’t really afford this, but whatever… I’ll figure it out in January), rebelliousness ( ‘I will NOT be limited to a certain amount’ or ‘whatever, I want it, I deserve it, I’m going to buy it), desperation (‘I can’t afford to buy all this, but I don’t want my kids to go without). And you can probably add some examples to this. 

As a Behavioural Money Coach, I hear these statement often.

It’s like we’re at the mercy of all this advertising, and all we can do is pull out our credit card.

What is happening? Why do we get so impulsive when it comes to great deals? 

Well, it starts in our body: when we see a deal, one of the ways our body reacts is by releasing dopamine. Areas of our brain that have to do with impulses, reward, and euphoria light up like a Christmas tree (no pun intended). We feel happy and all reasoning can go out the window. 

Dopamine is like a drug. It feels great in the moment, and we want more of it. But it also wears off quickly. We can’t catch our breath between all these sale events. No time to think it through, make a budget, or stick to it.

All this marketing is designed to trigger that feeling of urgency, desire and instant satisfaction, triggering more and more dopamine release. This is why you feel you can’t stop, or you get overly confident and spend more than you planned. 

The part of our brain that gets triggered when we see something we really want is the Primitive Brain. But the part of the brain we really should be using for money decisions is our Thinking brain (neocortex),  where logic and common sense live. 

All the messages at this time of year are designed to trigger your Primitive Brain: Get it before it runs out! Look at the discount! Get it while it’s on sale!

And since our Primitive Brain is so fast, we make purchases before our wiser and slower Thinking brain comes to the party. There’s so much more going on here than willpower and discipline. Thinking brain to the rescue! Here are 4 tips to help you take charge of your money this holiday season, so you can start the new decade off with excitement instead of debt.

1) Start with setting a goal for 2020

what is something you really would like to do or buy in 2020? Something that gets you inspired, motivated. This can’t be ‘pay off debt’ or ‘x$ in my bank account’. To replace the dopamine effect of shopping, it has to be something that feels like a reward for changing your spending habits. 

Write this goal, the date you want to achieve it by, and the amount of money you need for it, on a small card, and put it in your wallet, right in front of your credit card. Next time you pull out your credit card, your goal will be there to slow you down enough to re-evaluate your spending in that moment.

2) Take a quiet moment

(so no stress or panic to activate the primitive brain) to make a list of everything you do want or need to buy this season. This way, you can keep an eye out for sales. Remember, sales are only bad when we end up buying things we don’t need or can’t afford.)

3) Allocate your spendings

While still in your Zen mode, look at your monthly cash flow and savings. How much can you allocate for holiday spending without going into debt? Then take that amount of money from your bank IN CASH…. Yes really!! 

By using cash to do your shopping, you will spend more consciously. You’ll know exactly where you’re at by looking in your wallet and be inspired to be creative in getting gifts or experiences for everyone on your list. And when you spend more than planned, you’ll know it.  

Or, since cash is not accepted as widely as before, put the money in a separate chequing account, with its own card, away from your regular account so you can keep track of your spending, without having to keep tedious notes, or receipts.

IF you don’t have much money to allocate at all, how else can you give? Maybe gifting a night of babysitting, or cooking meals for someone, or making homemade gifts. You’ll be right on trend as many people are scaling back from overconsumption!

4) Unsubscribe

Do your brain a favour and unsubscribe from the emails from all the stores you don’t shop at. They not only clutter your inbox, they clutter your brain.

I wish you the best holiday season ever, however you celebrate it! I hope this will be a time of reflection, connection and relaxation for you, so you can enter this new year ready to take charge of your money!

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