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How to Spend Mindfully

Kimberly Palmer

The intensity and materialism of the holiday season can stymie even the most careful of shoppers: Retailers pull out every trick in the book to try to get us to spend, and to spend more than we had planned. They line the checkout counters with enticing last-minute purchases, they perfume the air with scents that put us in the mood to splurge and they plaster discounts and flash sales all around us.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow points out that the season is all about celebrating, socializing and lighting up some of the darkest days of the year - and that three-quarters of the average shopping budget goes toward gifts, so it's not all bad. But she warns shoppers about falling for classic retail sales schemes that make you feel pressured to buy quickly to take advantage of sales. Emotions, including stress, can lead to regrettable purchases, she says.

"Free shipping with a minimum purchase or a free gift with purchase can be pitfalls, too," Yarrow adds. While those kinds of deals can be useful ways to save money, they can also manipulate people into overspending.

[Read: How to Host Holiday Parties on a Budget.]

Yarrow urges people to make a list and stick with it, even when surrounded by appealing offers, and to avoid, at all costs, going into debt to buy gifts. "Debt is a terrible emotional burden, and it hurts relationships. Your family and true friends would rather have a 'happy you' than anything you could buy for them," she observes.

The credit card sleeve campaign from Jews United for Justice is also useful for people of any religious affiliation this time of year. The credit card sleeves contain a series of questions that help people "apply their highest values during the most mundane parts of their lives--everyday purchases," explains Jews United for Justice Executive Director Jacob Feinspan. The goal is to encourage people to reflect on the impact of their purchases before deciding whether or not to go through with them.

The card sleeves urge people to ask questions before making purchases, including: "Is this something I need?" "Can I borrow, find one used, or make one instead of buying new?" "Will this purchase enhance the meaning and joy in my life?"

[Read: 5 Last-Minute Money Moves to Make Before 2014.]

The questions were partially inspired by a project launched by the Center for a New American Dream called the Wallet Buddy. The Wallet Buddy, which also slips over a credit or debit card, asks: "Do I need this and do I need it now?" "Was it made sustainably?" and "Is it worth the money?" among other questions.

Since the organization first started distributing the sleeves in 2008 through local synagogues, it has handed out at least 8,000 of them. You can also create your own version at home by writing out the questions on a piece of paper and wrapping it around a credit card.

"When we hand them out, people usually say, 'I can never buy anything again because the answer to one of these questions is always no,' or 'Can I have three more, so I can give them to my husband and kids?'" Feinspan says.

[Read: The Holiday Gift for Kids That Keeps Giving.]

The idea of pausing to ask questions before purchasing appears to be spreading: Feinspan has since heard of other organizations creating similar credit card sleeves for their members, slightly customized for their own beliefs or culture. He adds, "People are excited for tools that will help them be more thoughtful about purchasing choices, and also to help them not spend money in ways that make them feel empty afterwards."

That approach is especially useful this time of year, for anyone who wants to avoid a post-holiday debt slump.

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