We all want to make people happy with the gifts we get them. Whether it’s a holiday, birthday, wedding, baby, or anniversary, we want to mark the occasion with a choice that will bring a smile to the recipient’s face. Unfortunately, too many of us are lured into the trap of believing that the more expensive the gift, the bigger the smile. Even worse, we believe that if we don’t provide a lavish gift, our recipients will feel that we don’t truly love or like them.

You may not even realize that guilt drives your gift-giving.  Consciously, you don’t even question the formula that equates love with price tags. The problem is made even worse by the fact that those we shop for think they’re making life easier by providing a list of web links or registering at their favorite stores.  Everyone knows exactly how much each gift is costing. Not only is the surprise factor completely eliminated, but so is the guessing factor.

In many ways, however, the lists that others give to us (and we to them) do eliminate many awkward moments. In fact, going “off the list” (as some brides call it) may guarantee you even worse condemnation than you’d get by buying gifts at the low end of the price range. The system has evolved in a way that is supposed to avoid hurt, pain, and the anguish of making returns. However, there are emotional costs.

Enter the guilt-free shopping zone. The ways to preserve your wallet and your psyche are remarkably simple:

  1. Put your game face on.  Whether you’re shopping in an actual or a virtual store, make up your mind well ahead of time to stick to your budget. It’s war out there, as retailers try to make you deviate from your plan. They will throw everything your way: sentimental music, gushy salespeople, desirable items that are inexplicably no longer available (but more expensive versions are), and illusory markdowns. Don’t let them get to you. Tell your subcortex (seat of irrational emotions) to stop tugging at your frontal lobes (home of logic) and follow your plan, no matter what.
  2. Remember that money can’t buy you love. It’s natural enough that in a consumer-oriented society, many people come to equate love with money. You naturally enough assume that increments of love can be measured in dollars. Logically, you know this isn’t true, but deep down, you may be so conditioned by decades of exposure to mass marketing that it’s hard to challenge this belief. To convince yourself, just think about the gifts you’ve received that meant the most to you. Were they ridiculously expensive? Probably not. Instead, they were the gifts that said something about your relationship with the gift-giver and therefore touched you most deeply. That said, you still need to be careful not to rock the boat by going “off the list.” If the recipient truly needs the items on that list, your gift will be most likely to be appreciated if it is something that he or she requested.  However, no one says you can’t add something else on top of the requested items. If all you can get are two washcloths instead of the entire set of bath towels, for example,  add something inexpensive but thoughtful, such as a pretty candle, or small bottle of bath salts in their favorite fragrance.
  3. Talk to yourself.  Those inner voices that say “if you love X, you’ll spend $$$” need to be silenced by counter-voices.   We all have our own self-calming mantras that we can utter which will drown out those irrational beliefs.  Yours might involve reminding yourself of how much you have in your checking account or line of credit. You can also use imagery to envision what the bills will look like when those bills arrive in a few weeks. Figure out which mental manipulation works best for you and then pull it out, as needed, once you’re on your shopping expedition.
  4. Give of your time if not your money. In the case of ordinary holiday or birthday (rather than wedding or baby) gifts, offer to do something for the recipient that will provide a valued service. It could be something as simple as a “voucher” for running some errands, an offer to help them with a household job that you’d be good at, or just baking, cooking, or canning a food you know they love.  Those yummy dinner rolls that only you can bake or the cranberry sauce whose recipe you’ve perfected may become such highly prized gifts that you’ll never again be stumped about what to get your favorite relatives or friends.
  5. Put yourself in a good mood. When you’re sad, anxious, stressed, or tired you’ll be much more vulnerable to the dangers of over-spending.  For some people, shopping provides a release from anxiety, boredom, or relationship woes. Don’t even think about getting started on your gift shopping until you can put yourself in an optimistic frame of mind. This also means that you should not put the shopping off until the last minute, because then you’ll have less control over your mood. Try to time your shopping to your best time of day because your mood will also be brighter and you’ll be less vulnerable to guilt.
  6. Turn on your observing ego. Get the part of your mind that controls rational thought (the ego) to watch what the rest of your mind is doing.  You don’t need to go into a dissociative state to do this, but you do need to step slightly outside of yourself and watch what’s going on while you’re shopping.  If you can get outside of the pull of the moment, you’ll be able to conquer the guilt-provoking inner forces that are luring you into making poor decisions. 

Each of us has our own reasons to buy gifts, and each of us has our own weaknesses that can get us into trouble by over-spending.  However, you can overcome guilt-based gifting to minimize your pain and maximize your pleasure . 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

 Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012

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