12/14/2012 08:22 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

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. She wasn't enjoying this. This is what obligation shopping looks like but it's also what emotional debt shopping looks like. This time of year is ensnares us in an emotional trap. Remind yourself that stuff doesn't heal anything. If you manage your emotions, you manage your money.


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.

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