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You Can’t Buy Your Way Out of Emotional Debt


It’s a Wednesday afternoon, two weeks before Christmas. Sarah decides to pop into the mall on her way to a client appointment. How busy could it be? It’s jammed. She finds a frenzy of activity, with people walking quickly while they try to power shop in the little time they have. Most of them seem to be like her, in business clothing, stealing an hour to get some gift shopping done. She wasn’t enjoying this and from looking at the expressions on other people’s faces, neither were they.

This is what obligation shopping looks like but it’s also what emotional debt shopping looks like. She goes through this every year. What’s the point? Trying to mend fences through buying gifts felt to Sarah as if she were grabbing for a life preserver when drowning but know she was going to be swept over the waterfall anyway.

She had one relationship that she always felt conflicted about. Her friend Amanda had been a friend for many years. Amanda had so many good qualities but there were many times when Amanda judged her, or so Sarah felt. It wasn’t anything overt, it was sometimes just a look, a pause or a comment. She often wondered why she felt so torn in her feelings for Amanda. Weren’t friendships supposed to be easy and harmonic. She began avoiding Amanda, sometimes resenting her? She felt guilty about her negative feelings and every Christmas, looked for a special, expensive gift for Amanda. She was trying to make up for all the times she avoided her. Mostly, she tried to make up for her mean thoughts.

So many of us can relate to Sarah’s situation. This time of year is ensnares us in an emotional trap. At times, we’re happy to get together with family and friends whom we haven’t seen for awhile. But we also try to make up for our neglect. We spend time with people we are in conflict with or feel conflicted about. It’s so tough to process these feelings in the midst of joy.

We are so vulnerable to the pull from the holiday messages and the imagery of happy, smiling people. The images and music build hope in our hearts that we can have the ideal holiday experience of united families, great relationships and warm feelings. All of it comes surrounded by gifts. We hope our gift is perfect, bringing joy to the recipient whom we fantasize will be touched by your thoughtfulness that past hurts and slights are all forgotten. Our relationships are healed by this single gesture.

Then disappointment sets in when, once again, we discover it isn’t that simple. January rolls around and you’re left with the same relationship, unchanged but now you’re wallet is much lighter. You tried to buy your way to forgiveness and healing only to find yourself left deeper in debt. It takes your further from you financial goals and locks you deeper into your feeling of not being in control. You start off the new year behind the eight ball. So what can you do?

First of all, tune in to your emotions and check your motivation for spending. When you’re in the mall or in the store, stay in touch with your feelings about your purchase. Pause before you pay. Check in and ask yourself why you are buying the gift, what do you hope it’ll do for you. Will a less expensive gift do the trick? Do you need to buy a gift at all?

Secondly, remind yourself that stuff doesn’t heal anything. Stuff and the high it gives you is temporary. It’s like a drug; you feel good for awhile but then the effect wears off quickly and you need more. You hang on to the illusion that maybe this time it might work. It can be satisfying to buy a gift because you imagine what the gift will do for you. You impart great power to the gift- the power to heal relationships. You eventually realize that it was an illusion. Your emotional debts have roots and you need to get to the bottom of them. You can’t buy your way out of emptiness. You need to understand your areas of hollowness and either make peace with it or remedy it.

Thirdly, leave your credit card at home. Keep your debit card balance as low as possible. Entering a mall at this time of year with a credit card is a dangerous thing to do. The displays and packaging are beautiful and everything looks enticing. If you are feeling emotional, it’s just too overwhelming to deal with. You will react in the moment and reach for the credit card and will likely regret it by the time you get home. So, shop without the card; you can always go back.

Finally, plan in advance. The safest way to avoid over-spending is to plan in advance. Have a total gift budget and decide what you are going to spend on whom. Don’t exceed your budget. The gift budget includes yourself. Data has shown that we go over budget by $130 by buying a gift for ourselves.

Enjoy the holidays. Have fun, enjoy the warmth and good wishes. It can be such a beautiful time of year. Remember, if you manage your emotions, you manage your money.

  • Zooey Deschanel

    Zooey Deschanel is nothing like the flaky free spirit she plays on TV. During her recent divorce proceedings, the New Girl star was forced to detail her income and expenses, during which she showed the world just how financially savvy she is. She saves about 76 percent of her income, she has zero debt, and she has $1.58 million in the bank and even more invested in stocks and bonds. Sure, she spends $22,250 a month on expenses but when you make $95,000 a month, you can afford to while having lots left over to pad your savings account. <em>Lesson learned: Aim to save more than you spend.</em>

  • Eva Longoria

    Although she spent $1.5 million on her 2007 wedding to Tony Parker, Eva Longoria has a definite practical streak, and she comes by it honestly. Longoria claims that her father used to take her camping with no food as a child to teach her how to ‘live off of the land’. “He would tell us that we could live off the land. I can skin a deer, a pig, a snake …, ” she said in an interview. <em>Lesson learned: Longoria would be an excellent person to join forces with in the event of an apocalypse. </em>

  • Sarah Jessica Parker

    Unlike Carrie Bradshaw, whose addiction to Manolos left her perpetually struggling to save money, Sarah Jessica Parker is much more modest in her spending. Born into humble beginnings as one of eight children in a family on welfare, Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick strive to bring their children up without spoiling them. “[My son] only wears hand-me-downs because I’ve got all these older nephews,” she told People Magazine. “I think it’s incumbent on my husband and me to really stress and to show James Wilkie by example what it means to owe your community something and that he is not entitled to the benefits of our hard work.” <em>Lesson learned: Nobody likes a spoiled, entitled rich kid.</em>

  • Leonardo DiCaprio

    Although he’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Leonardo Dicaprio keeps his spending pretty low-key. He chooses to fly on commercial flights rather than hiring a private jet, and he only owns one car – a Toyota Prius. Sure, that Prius happens to be a $100,000 model designed specifically for him, but it’s a hybrid and that’s all that matters to this eco-conscious celeb. <em>Lesson learned: It’s ok to be a bit extravagant if it helps the environment.</em>

  • Kate Middleton

    As the future Queen of England, Duchess Katherine could be waited on hand and foot if she wanted to. Instead, she does her own grocery shopping, she wears outfits more than once to public appearances (the horror!) and she shuns the services of a personal dresser, choosing instead to shop on her own at department stores. Lesson learned: Even royals aren’t above picking their own produce.

  • Warren Buffett

    He’s one of the richest men in the world (second to Bill Gates) and yet Warren Buffett lives in an unpretentious five-bedroom house in Omaha that he purchased four decades ago for $30,000. What’s more, he has a habit of buying used cars. They’re fairly nice cars, mind you, but used nonetheless. <em>Lesson learned: If you want to be rich like Buffett, you’ve gotta save like Buffett. </em>

  • Dave Grohl

    He’s one of the most famous rock stars of all time, but Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl doesn’t let that go to his head. “You can’t take your lifestyle for granted,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I’ve got tons of money, but I’m afraid to spend it. Knowing I don’t even have a high school diploma to fall back on, I’m going to be really careful with what I’ve got.” <em>Lesson learned: It’s important to save up for a rainy day.</em>

  • Beyonce Knowles

    Despite a career that’s gone from strength to strength since her time with Destiny’s Child, Beyonce Knowles doesn’t spend much. “I haven’t bought a car since I was 16 or any diamonds since I was 17,” she told the UK Mirror. “I have a lot of property. I’ve invested my money and I don’t have to make any more, thank God, because I’m set. I’m now able really to be free and just do things that make me happy. I want to have a long career, be respected and not go off track.” We’re betting she’s especially enjoying her financial stability now that she has little Blue Ivy Carter to look after. <em>Lesson learned: Work hard now, enjoy financial freedom later. </em>

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