Thursday, November 20

Tightening economy? Seems pretty loose to me!

Everywhere you turn, there are articles about spending. Or, to be more precise, lack thereof.


Every newspaper is spouting dire predictions for the holidays, based on polls that show people are going to conserve this holiday. They are going to pay for more things with cash. They are going to buy smaller amounts.


Of course, if you took polls around New Years, you could feel certain in predicting a much-thinner America by the summer.


So I wonder why everyone is putting so much stock in these polls.


The thing is, Americans want to have learned their lessons -- the same way they want to be thinner and eating more healthily. (Or, as I always say to Tim about junk food: I want to eat it; I just don't want to have eaten it.)


Perhaps I've just become too cynical to take this economic free fall seriously. All I know is, the protestations of the many really don't sound much different than in other years. Every year, papers claim that Americans are going to buy fewer gifts, shop more sales and generally be wiser with their money.


But they assert this because that's the line that the American public is feeding to the pollsters.


And yes, yes, I know: We're already seeing sales shrink. People are buying less retail. They're sticking to sale prices and clearance.


Still, as the holiday shopping season opens its floodgates, I feel certain we're going to see some of those good intentions falter. There are two reasons for this:

  • It's for the kids! People can deprive themselves of a lot of things. But it's easy to go overboard on the kids. And people not used to reining in their spending will probably also fall for the "but it's on sale" dupe. They'll be sure to get great prices.... But fail to add those numbers up until it's too late.
  • Frugal burnout. We're already in the midst of this "crisis." (Pick whichever one you feel is most appropriate: credit, housing, bank, economy.) Frugal burnout is natural, as people get weary of deprivation. That weariness turns to indignation -- they should have nice things once in awhile -- or to resignation -- the debt will be there forever anyway, so might as well have a good Christmas.

I'm not saying that everything will be business as usual. I definitely see fewer holiday employment signs up. And, as a nation, we are spending less: buying fewer luxuries, shopping generic brands, clipping coupons.


But Tim and I have found ourselves in the mall a few times lately and I've yet to see any tumbleweed blowing down the halls.


What I do see (on weekday afternoons, no less) are plenty of people milling around. And a goodly chunk of them have bags in hand. The food courts are still pretty full, especially on weekends.


Face it, historically, we have an awfully short attention span, even when we do have good intentions. Add to that the cool, flashy nature of the holidays -- with pretty lights and plenty of sparkles, and rampantly advertised consumerism -- and Americans are like moths to the proverbial flame.


And this flame will burn them.


Sure, they've vowed to keep purchases to a minimum. No more flashy cell phones or GPS devices.


But retailers are crafty -- they have to be to survive, even in a good economy. They're rolling out the pre-Black-Friday ads. Even if people aren't seduced by the somewhat-mediocre prices (I, for one, am practically glum about them), retailers are counting on our goldfish-like powers of recall.


A large chunk of Americans have been lured into holiday shopping now for the last two weeks. Even assuming the unlikely -- that they buy only advertised specials and not a single item more -- time is on the retailers' side.


By the time the real Black Friday has past, most Americans will be dumping the various sale items into the pile in the closet. They don't bother to count things up. They don't bother to check to see if they have "enough." Because they've fallen under the spell of "deal shopping."


But if you buy things that never get used, or things that end up being tossed away quickly, how much of a deal is it, anyway? And if you go overbudget because of some really great sales, you're still going overbudget.


It's what we do every year. It's practically a national tradition.


Tomorrow I'll suggest some ways for the more susceptible of us (and I'm counting myself here) to keep from going gift-crazy.

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