Feel Good

Christmas and the psychology of spending

Tis the season to be spending tra la la la laah…la la la lah…

Written by High Life North
Published 13.11.2020

By Sian Barnard

Do you feel compelled to spend excessively through guilt, shame or uncontrollable urges? Let’s have a look at possible reasons and what to do about them. The amount of people who increase their stress levels due to over-spending at Christmas is staggering. You can be left with the January blues plus a huge chasm in you bank balance.

So excessive spending:

  1. Can be a problem anytime of the year if it’s used to make you feel better. Christmas is just the excuse to hide behind. Just like the alcoholic feeling ok to drink bucks fizz at 8am on Christmas morning “because its Christmas…”
  2. Can be done through feelings of guilt
  3. Can be to avoid shame – keeping up with the Jones’

Let’s look at the emotional spender…

The one seeking solace away from uncomfortable feelings like depression, frustration, boredom, anger or anxiety. When some people spend, they get a release of one or more neurochemicals. These are chemicals in the brain that give us our moods. Dopamine is our pleasure chemical. We can become addicted to activities and drugs that flood our brains with dopamine. When we get excited about buying something, wearing it, seeing other people’s reactions etc, we release dopamine. Some people have sensitive dopamine systems pre-programmed genetically, others have just overused them and made them less sensitive, so they need more and more of what they believe gives them pleasure. This can lead to addiction.

Also known as retail therapy, emotional spending, only produces a short-term fix, like any fix really. There are families I know who have dysfunctional relationships throughout the year and then at Christmas attempt to show their love by buying ridiculous amounts presents for each other way beyond their means.

When we reach for any fix, we are not addressing the seeds of the problem. We are suppressing the uncomfortable feeling by flooding the brain with pleasure chemicals. When I work with people who I call “the feeling fighters”. The first thing I help them do is identify their behaviours that keep their problems going.

Therefore, if you have a tendency to make yourself feel better by spending, remember Christmas is a perfect opportunity for this unhealthy habit to blend into your life. Ask yourself, do I go over the top with what I buy? Do I spend more on people than they spend on me? Do I buy more clothes and shoes because I need more outfits at Christmas? Or just because it is Christmas? Do I buy more food even when I’m not expecting the Five Thousand? Yeah…but it is only once a year eh? It might not be only at Christmas try to look for trends, be honest. I tend to spend more when I’m feeling low! There I admitted it. I lost my mum last year and I began to notice that I would be browsing online shops and buying stuff…of course, I need another black jumper (I have a bloody herd of them). So, here’s another thing, unnecessary spending can be justified, like buying a plain black jumper as “it won’t come in wrong”.

While my spending isn’t excessive or frequent (don’t ask my husband) you may recognise similar tendencies. When you make a purchase always ask yourself if you truly need it or do you want it. Also, ask if you didn’t make this purchase would you still be in need of it next week? Then the ultimate question, are you buying it because there is something going on in your life and you will get temporary relief from the purchase? If the answer is yes, look to the feelings, then your thoughts and work on them.

The guilty spender…

Guilty spending can fall into the above category, however, it can also warrant its own talking point. Guilt is about either breaking ones own moral code or believing you have hurt another person, animal or group, or both.

Like the family I mentioned earlier, when people have difficult relationships, particularly dysfunctional ones, they tend to compensate and seek retribution though the lavishing of gifts. Christmas is a perfect opportunity to “make things all better”. “Look what I got you” meaning that’s how much I love you. Or “here you go, it cost X amount” meaning this is how sorry I am.

Relationships within families can be complex because we are conditioned to socialize even though we may not like or gel with those we are related to. Whatever the dynamics are, overspending will not do anything apart from make you more out of pocket. It may even cause more friction if they don’t look appreciative. If you feel the need to spend on your close or even not so close relation ask why? What am I feeling guilty about? Did I behave badly? Did I cause them harm? If the answer is yes work out what is the best course of action to change those feelings of guilt to something more manageable like remorse and then if there needs to be a frank conversation or not. Sometimes putting things right is about making an agreement with yourself that you will be as fair and polite as possible with them and maybe even offer to help them out, doing something kind without needing recognition. Its difficult with parent/child relationships. If you buy your children too much because you work all the time, or their dad left then you already know this is dysfunctional. It is however, perfectly understandable. Putting things right is not about beating oneself with a stick, its about honesty and courage to put things right so no one gets hurt. I will always advise a person who has cheated to never tell the partner if it is just to make themselves feel better while the partners life is going to be turned upside down. That is selfish guilt. You confess when you know it’s the right thing for the partner and all concerned (there are no black and white solutions EVER in these situations).

Some people are born with inherent guilt and feel responsible for everything that goes wrong in relationships, work, other people’s lives and even the state of the world. These poor souls will need to make up for everything and will get great amounts of relief from over spending and making everyone happy. Of course, the problem here is firstly the dopamine hit wears off for the giver and they then realise that the person can’t remain happy because of their gift and the other dopamine’s will wear off (assuming they liked their gift/s).

Once again ask yourself, why am I spending on this person? What am I trying to achieve with this amount of spending? Am I just fixing something or papering over something that I need to look at?

The spender that feels inadequate…

The third category is all about feeling inadequate. When we don’t think we good enough, worthy, nice talented, likeable, rich enough, intelligent enough or loveable we can feel ashamed if we think others are thinking this or could find out. We then develop a number of strategies to compensate for these feelings. One of which is spending.

I have felt sad on a number of occasions when I have seen or heard of parents going more into debt because of buying huge ticket items for their kids as well as lots of other toys, clothes and games. Sofas and chairs piled high overflowing into the room because they also know (sometimes through the manipulation of their kids) what such-and-such is getting for Christmas. To then not get your children a similar amount, or more if you feel you have more to prove, is unbearable. Distorted thoughts like “what sort of parent will they think I am if I don’t give them a good Christmas?”. Well a good Christmas can have many more definitions! What if you feel inadequate towards friends or family, especially marriage relations? Buying an expensive gift or many gifts can falsely make you feel this makes you their equal or at best they might not look down on you.

You may even spend money at Christmas because it makes you look not only wealthier, but more fun and likeable. We are back to that “fake book” mentality. I think some people call it Facebook. Heard of a three-bird roast? I’m sure it’s those clever marketeers are, once again, conditioning us to be more of an “I want to feel better about myself” culture. If you feel inadequate compared to who you have coming for dinner or you believe they may judge you, you may decide to on having goose, turkey, beef AND Pork. This is probably unnecessary and does not solve your problems. It could work in the short term but it’s a lie. A lie to yourself.

Spending £400 on a dress to make you feel better when you can only afford a £150 is also a false promise. Confidence and TRUE happiness ALWAYS come from inside as self-acceptance and a non-comparative philosophy and not from outside of you in the form of materialism or other people’s approval. You are awesome with lots of faults. Remember this! What we consider faults others probably will not. We have an overly critical and biased view. People are usually too preoccupied with themselves and their own feelings of inadequacy to pay much attention to yours. Don’t try and work out what other people think based on your own views of you. Equally, you are not psychic. People like people because they are likeable, genuine and caring. They do not dislike or think less of you because you are; single, have a spot, not in designer gear, overweight, spend sensibly, don’t receive an extravagant gift or unnecessary gifts. Equally, you don’t really like yourself more with a house full of stuff. In fact, you will like yourself less!

Having nice things and spending, of course, can give you pleasure and that’s okay, it’s when it’s excessive, compulsive and hiding issues that it is a problem.

Identifying behaviours and looking at why you are doing them and realising that they aren’t really going to cut it in the long run, in fact a lot of them just perpetuate problems or mask them is the first step to making positive changes to your life.


Sian is a cognitive behaviour therapist and also a clinical hypnotherapist, having trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the College of Clinical Hypnosis. Four years ago Sian relocated her Harley Street practice to her native North East after 26 years in central London. Sian now runs her private clinic in Gosforth and also owns a training academy to help organisations with stress reduction. Sian’s approach is to help people become their own therapists, whether they come to see her for panic attacks, depression or OCD (she covers a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues).


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