THE BLOG
12/19/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Are You Giving Your Seasonal Shopaholic Credit Card Blanche?

Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

The holiday season is in full swing, and for the millions of us who have trouble limiting our spending, this time of year can be especially difficult. It seems like everyone is shopping: on lunch breaks, after work, over the weekend. It can be an exercise in self-definition, self-expression and creativity -- to say nothing of a whole lot of fun -- if done in a measured and mindful way. But no holds barred, it could lead to a whopping post-holiday hangover.

The proliferations of "special" shopping days bombard us with "buying" opportunities. Retailers can't wait.

Thanksgiving Day was effectively roped into the marketing bonanza and renamed "Gray Thursday" to feed the next day's Black Friday fever. The following Saturday was carved out for small business buying before we were given Sunday to let the magnetic stripes on our credit cards cool. On Monday, we were found shopping deep in Cyberspace. And the day after? The day after was designated "Giving Tuesday." Feel free to make generous donations, if you somehow managed to have any money left.

I say we've got it backwards. Giving Tuesday needs to kick off the season.

How did we get here? It all started with Black Friday 1960, an event meant to kick off the holiday shopping season. Sleep-deprived shoppers were expertly persuaded to feverishly search for bargains while still a bit hungover or bloated from the feast the day before. Now, we find ourselves constantly succumbing to sales seduction, never stopping to determine whether our purchases even make sense. A tsunami of buying power, sale flyers and marketing magic swallows us up, making our crazed buying behavior somehow seem normal.

Still, the high of the buy is very temporary. The damage done by overbuying is usually what lingers and chokes out the joy we may have gotten from buying the items in the first place. Can we be saved from our impulse buying insanity? The answer may lie in the very message of the new beginning of the commercial onslaught, Thanksgiving itself.

Did you know that gratitude helps shoppers refrain from impulsive financial decisions? In one study, participants, primed to feel grateful, were asked if they would prefer $30 in the current moment or $100 at some point in the future. Grateful participants were much more likely to wait for the larger reward than others. It seems that our spending habits and self-control are greatly benefitted by time devoted to counting our blessings instead of the number of gifts our dwindling dollars can buy.

Still nervous that gratitude alone won't keep your bank account in the black? Before any financial damage is done, put together an efficient, organized shopping strategy:

• Imagine walking into tempting sales situations and buying only what's on your list. Really see the whole scene; feel what it's like to be tempted by extra purchases and successfully resist buying.

• Go prepared. Who you are buying for? Specifically, what do you want to get? How much can you comfortably afford? How much time will you spend?

• Carefully add up costs before you leave for the mall. If the budget is already blown, make the necessary changes before leaving home.

• Bring along a shopping support buddy. Make out your lists together, find deals with a shopping app and identify what you really want or need to buy. Then head out to the stores.

Most of all, when you do get out there, ask yourself what really makes you happiest. Does swiping your credit card fill you with hope and love? Or would you rather spread the holiday spirit in a more meaningful way? Much research over the last 10 years has shown the same thing. It is not stuff that brings us happiness, but having special experiences and giving to others.

Things get old. We get used to them, we forget them. Experiences, however, last far longer. Who doesn't love the happy anticipation of concerts, travels or adventures to come? Don't fond memories of good times last far longer than the actual experience itself? Our experiences are more centrally connected to our identity than anything external.

Generosity, too, is a universal pleasure. According to a recent Gallup World Poll, 100 countries, rich and poor alike, reported that giving increased happiness more than spending. A recent Wall Street Journal article quotes Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happy Money. "A lot of us think we'll give to charity one day when we're richer, but actually we see the benefits of giving even among people who are struggling to meet their own basic needs... almost anything we do to improve our connections with others tends to improve our happiness as well -- and that includes spending money."

Sometimes the excess of the holidays can spur the best decisions. For example, a decade ago, my husband and I made a bold choice -- to celebrate the holidays with a family trip. One Christmas day, we danced with the Samburu in Kenya; another we camped out with the red rocks of Arizona in view. On a third, we helped renovate a home for a low-income family in Pennsylvania and slept in a school. Instead of amassing stuff, we've gathered happy and indelible memories with our two sons. Our experiences and charitable giving both broadened us individually and brought us closer as a family.

The truth is that perfect holiday gifts don't come in boxes or bags. Organize your own family adventure, spread happiness with pro-social spending, or keep it simple and debt-free with a few of the following options:

• Give a gift certificate to someone through kiva.org, an organization that makes microloans to people all over the world.

• Buy iPad (RED); 50% of the proceeds fight AIDS in Africa.

• Purchase a Samesky bracelet; their funds help American women rebuild their lives through training and employment.

• Volunteer together.

• Scope out free celebrations that highlight different aspects of the season.

Take a deep breath, put away those sales flyers. Your best holiday won't be found elbowing the next guy at a big box store or under the tissue in a department store bag. A good, not a goods holiday -- the best kind -- happens when you replace mindless buying with meaningful being, a transformation achieved through meaningful experiences, gratefulness and sincere generosity.

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