Is the Economic Crisis Creating Happier and Smarter Shoppers?

You Say Budget Like It’s a Bad Thing!

As predicted, last weekend (the first weekend after the historic election) saw people going to the stores to make start their holiday shopping. With the uncertainty of the election season behind us, and the prospect that the economy is not going to turn around by magic over the next two months, shoppers hit the stores.

Our correspondents in New Jersey, California, Dallas and Seattle, all told us that holiday shopping was going ahead. Here in New York, Fifth Avenue was lined with people rushing around with bags. Toys “R” Us and FAO Schwarz were jammed.

But we spent a healthy part of the weekend talking with shoppers about how they were approaching the holidays, and while it’s not a scientific sample, almost everyone we spoke to said they were on a budget this year.

And here’s the thing: They were all happy. They were happy to be shopping, out with family, in New York, whatever. Being on a budget didn’t seem particularly onerous to any of them. In fact, some people even seemed proud that they were being careful about the money they were spending.

Don’t tell me we’re growing up!?!?!

Yes, it may be just that. People we spoke to were mindful of what they had to spend. They might think the $300 plush toy was cute. They might even say, “imagine how (insert child’s name here) would love that.” But what they weren’t doing was going into debt to buy it. And they seemed proud and happy that they were shopping responsibly.

I’m the child of Depression Era parents. We didn’t have much money; my parents were teachers, and there were five of us kids. But what we did have was a sense of reality. One of my parents’ cardinal values was living within one’s means. That, they told me, was what grown ups do. Their teaching me, and modeling, that value has, after some youthful mistakes, made me happier and more content and, most importantly, mindful of the privileges I have.

I recently heard a wise friend say, “The secret to your happiness today is to want what you have.” In other words, to focus on the gifts life has given us and be happy in the moment. It’s not that we don’t have hopes and dreams. It’s not that we don’t want to do better, get more, give more to our kids; we all do. But it’s also good to take stock of what we do have and try to avoid feelings of deprivation. They’re toxic and, more than anything, can undermine the pleasures of the holiday.

Which takes me back to all the happy people I encountered braving sloppy gray day in Manhattan last weekend to shop. The dismal weather and the early twilight only made the shop windows seem more enticing. Yet when I asked people what were the best parts of the day, several said that they were loving finding bargains—and they weren’t racking up more credit card debt.

Imagine, I said to a friend whom I met for dinner, what might happen if we had holidays without remorse. Yes, I know that retailers are concerned about their numbers being down, but I think we have to take the longer view. Consumers who live within their means continue to buy even after the holidays. They’re not trying to take care of debts for presents that may be long forgotten long into the New Year.

And isn’t your peace of mind worth it? At the end of the day, we’ve virtually never seen anyone remembered for the presents they gave but for the presence they had in the lives of their families and friends.

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