Holiday & Travel Planning

Spend Less (Impulsively) This Holiday Season

Writing in a money journal five minutes a day can help curb overspending and impulsive buys during the holidays.

Keep gifts within the holiday budget
Keep gifts within the holiday budget

Adults with attention deficit disorder are prone to overspending — especially during the holidays. But if you think you have problems reining in expenditures on gifts, parties, and so on, you should meet my client Roberta, a 36-year-old single mom with ADHD. At least you should have met Roberta before I helped her find a solution to her out-of-control holiday spending.

An independent contractor in the telecommunications industry, Roberta has always made a good living. Her problem wasn’t income, it was impulsivity. She tried hard to stick to a budget, but each time the holiday season came around, impulsivity would get the better of her. She her holiday spending went far beyond even her ample means, buying extravagant gifts for friends and family and eating meal after meal at fancy restaurants.

All the money that Roberta had socked away during the year was quickly eaten up. Along with her resolutions, she would routinely ring in the new year with a mountain of credit card debt. She never seemed able to put anything away for retirement. Roberta once told me it felt like she was stuck on a treadmill set one notch too fast.

[Free Resource: Managing Your Time During the Holidays]

Willpower Alone Won’t Work

Roberta thought that the solution to her problem was more willpower. But I knew that that wouldn’t be enough. What she needed, I told her, was a specific plan for curbing her spending.

I urged Roberta to prepare a written list of people she wanted to give gifts to, and to specify a spending cap for each person. I suggested that she start her shopping earlier in the season, so she wouldn’t feel pressured at the last minute — and use that as an excuse to spend more than she had planned. Of course, shopping early also meant she had time to look around for the best deals.

Most important, I convinced Roberta to spend five minutes each evening recording her thoughts and values about money in a journal. Journaling is a great tool for developing self-awareness about any chronic problem, whether it’s overspending, overeating, or something else.

I felt sure that Roberta’s journal would renew her commitment to change. I gave her a short list of questions to spur her writing, and she came up with more. (See “How to Start a Money Journal” below.)

[Read This: Holiday Balancing Act]

Learning From Her Journal

Roberta told me later that the simple act of getting her thoughts down on paper made them less abstract, and, therefore, easier to grapple with. Rereading her journal entries reminded her of how important her long-term financial goals were — and helped her see that her spending behavior did not reflect her values.

For instance, Roberta had always thought she believed in the notion that “it’s the thought that counts.” But her tendency was to “compensate” by buying more gifts for someone when she worried she’d spent too little on that person. Growing up, she had learned that it was bad to be “cheap,” with cheap defined as not spending “enough” on gifts. This realization made changing her spending behavior less of a chore.

Roberta’s impulsivity didn’t go away completely. But in January, when her credit card bills came in below what she had budgeted, she basked in the pleasure of a job well done — and a new year off to a good start. I say, be like Roberta — that is, like the new Roberta.

[Click to Read: How to Manage Your Money with ADHD]