TV commercials and childhood nostalgia would have you believe that the holidays are a time of unalloyed joy and cheer. But here in the real world the picture is far more mixed. The season of gift-giving might be jolly, but it's also super stressful... and the gift-giving is often to blame. 

For instance, a new survey of 1,000 Americans by Credit Karma found an incredible 82 percent of us are stressed out by holiday spending. All those prettily wrapped packages and festive meals can really strain already tight budgets. And what's worse, stress can actually drive people to shop more, which just makes their financial anxiety greater. It's a vicious stress-spending cycle. 

What's the solution? There's tons of great nuts-and-bolts budgeting advice out there, but even more fundamental than changing how you shop is changing how you think, according to science. 

The best budget in the world won't break the stress-shopping cycle.

If you're worried about controlling your holiday spending, financial experts have all sorts of tips: set a fixed budget for gifts (here's exactly how much, according to one economist), avoid shopping with friends, get familiar with all the tricks retailers use to finagle more money out of you, etc. 

This is solid advice but it all deals with the symptom of overspending rather than addressing the root cause of why you feel the need to reach for your wallet in the first place. If you really want to get your spending under control you have to adjust your attitude, not just your budget. 

Math and willpower alone won't keep our spending under control, Northeastern University psychology professor Daviod DeSteno explains in The New York Times. "Rather than trying to override your decision-making impulses, a better strategy might be to try to change them," he insists. 

How do you do that exactly? In a word: gratitude.

The real antidote to holiday overspending 

If, as the Credit Karma survey suggests, stressing about the things we lack drives us to shop more, wouldn't consciously celebrating all that we have help us rein in our spending? To test this idea DeSteno and his team conducted a simple experiment. They asked 75 subjects to either write about a time they were grateful or about a typical day. Then they tested participants' ability to resist short-term temptation and make sensible long-term financial decisions. 

"Those feeling grateful showed almost double the financial patience," DeSteno reports. "What's more, the amount of patience people possessed was directly tied to how grateful they felt." In short, gratitude seems to be the true antidote to stress-induced holiday impulse buying

So by all means set yourself a budget this season, but before you hit the shops remember to take one more step too: count your blessings. 

"You may find that the easiest way to thwart retailers' enticements as you peruse the shopping aisle isn't to try to resist what you want; it's to be thankful for what you have," DeSteno concludes. That's solid advice any time of the year but particularly powerful now that holiday shopping, and stress, is in full swing. 

Published on: Dec 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.