Stuck in the holiday spend cycle

By Kevin Huffman
Friday, December 18, 2009

Over the next week, millions of Americans will shop in a mad dash to beat the holiday finish line. The seasonal chaos will ring up billions on credit cards, as our stockings are once more stuffed to bursting. It's the most wonderful time of the year, to be sure.

It's also the high before the predictable downer. First, we buy. Then we gorge. Then we settle and reflect while the remorse sets in. We ring in the new year with a slate of resolutions to behave better. And yet the third Monday in January is, according to some psychologists, the most depressing day of the year, when we stare glumly at the bills and lament the discarded resolutions.

Each year, it's the same story. As we enter the cycle for the final time in the Aughts, it occurs to me that it's also the story of the decade. As a country, we embarked on an extended holiday shopping season -- buying McMansions on adjustable-rate mortgages, embracing tax cuts with no corresponding spending restraint. Everyone was merry -- until the economy went south. Then we were engulfed with remorse. Our new president lectured us that "the time has come to set aside childish things," while we nodded, shamefaced, and promised to be better.

Indeed, what are new year's resolutions if not a commitment to set aside childish things? The top five annual resolutions hardly boggle the mind: Lose weight. Pay down debt. Exercise. Save money. Spend more time with family and friends. It seems like a bad omen that each year we have to remind ourselves to be less lazy and to have dinner at home instead of at the mall. Perhaps it's telling that new year's resolutions started with King Janus and the Roman Empire. One imagines Romans dutifully writing down: "Stop cheering when the lions eat someone. No more visits to the vomitorium." If we are looking for lessons, that story didn't end well.

Nationally, we have arrived at the day of reckoning -- the point when we either keep the resolutions or once more concede defeat. Where are we headed? The signs aren't promising. Black Friday sales were up from last year, and the news was reported as positive -- we're overspending again! On Wall Street, billions of dollars in bonuses are heading out the door to reward short-term gains.

Looming just over the horizon is the third Monday in January.

If this is all too predictable, why must we repeat the cycle? How do we keep our resolve and avoid the post-new year's depression?

Jill RachBeisel, director of community psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center, suggests that the answer lies in toning down the ambition on our resolutions. She advises, "Focus on realistic goals with measurable results. You need to break things down into small steps you can manage." (This sounds remarkably like the Obama administration's approach to health-care reform, so maybe the president is on to something.)

The best solution of all, of course, is to avoid the gorging and gluttony in the first place. It's too late for America. We ate the cookies -- plate after sweet, delectable plate. No amount of Tums can save us from the consequences.

But it's not too late for you and me. This holiday season could mark a new beginning.

As I contemplated gift ideas recently, I remembered a Christmas from several years ago. My then-5-year-old niece, the first grandchild, led an extended-family charge through a breathtaking array of gifts, strewing a mountain of paper and boxes in her wake. When it was all over, as I surveyed the damage, I saw my niece off in the corner, surrounded by every gift a child could want. The toys sat idle, and she was happily playing with an empty wrapping-paper tube and an old tennis ball.

It's down to the wire, and my Christmas list awaits. I have purchased almost nothing, and, sadly, I can't get away with giving empty wrapping-paper tubes. But in honor of my niece, I hereby resolve to tone down the madness. And to anyone thinking of giving me another sweater: Let's go with an awkward hug, a Merry Christmas and, truly, a happy new year.

The writer was winner of The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

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