Financial stress and ‘under-earning’

When people think about answers to financial stress a lot of energy and attention is paid to our spending. Where does all our money go, we are urged to ask of ourselves and our partners.

The implication is clear: if we suffer financial stress we share a flaw – impulsive and sometimes reckless spending. We can easily go straight to the conclusion that we are over-spenders, who use spending to numb out boredom and difficult emotions. We might even think we are greedy.

When people think about answers to financial stress a lot of energy and attention is paid to our spending. Where doesall our money go, we are urged to ask of ourselves and our partners.

The implication is clear: if we suffer financial stress we share a flaw – impulsive and sometimes reckless spending. We can easily go straight to the conclusion that we are over-spenders, who use buying to numb out boredom and difficult emotions. We might even think we are greedy.

For some people, sadly, those are harsh truths. But just as many people try with all their willpower and attention to detail and live within their means, and cannot seem to make ends meet. For many people a polar opposite problem to over-spending applies: under-earning.

Earning less than your skills suggests it wouldn’t be a major problem if it wasn’t so damn expensive to live; so huge numbers of people are driven into debt.

It isn’t cheap to live in Australia, especially in a capital city like Sydney.

According to Numbeo (the world’s largest cost of living database), the cost of living in Australia is 17.6% higher than the United States. In fact, it’s cheaper to live in countries such as France, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada.

US households on average carry US$145,000 (A$187,400) in debt, according to personal finance website The Ascent. In Australia the figure is even higher, skyrocketing beyond A$250,000. Much of those debts are mortgage repayments, an essential cost and also an investment in our futures.

But what about credit card debt? In the US, the average credit card debt per household is US$7,000 according to nerdwallet.com, while the average American with a student loan owes $56,000 and the average car loan is $27,000 . Card debt is lower in Australia, around A$2500 per cardholder, while car loans are slightly higher here.

It’s not yet known what the average debts owed to credit services like Afterpay and ZipMoney are as they are too new, but the national bill in Australia is thought to be over $1 billion.

“Many people believe that card and personal loan debts come from heedless spending, and to get out of debt you have to stop buying luxuries and living a lifestyle beyond your means,” says Andrew Fleming, Founder and CEO of Financial Mindfulness.

These assumptions are often wrong he says. “Often people use cards, credit services and loans because their incomes don’t match their expenses, especially when an unexpected expense comes along” he says.

In most western economies it is well known that the cost of living – let alone the price of major life expenses like property – has outpaced inflation and wages for many years.

One answer to how we cope with going backwards even when we have the best of intentions is to confront the issue raised near the start of this article: under-earning.

But beyond a state most of us find difficult, even shameful to talk about, what is under-earning, exactly?

First it’s useful to identify what under-earning is not.

Barbara Stanny, author of Overcoming Underearning: A Five Step Plan for a Richer Life wrote in Forbes in 2011 that an under-earner is not someone who chooses a low income, or a simpler life without much work. “It is always a CONDITION OF DEPRIVATION[sic] not just of money, but of time, joy, freedom, choices and self-esteem,” Stanny wrote.

Under-earners are often drowning in debt and vague about money, she wrote. They might even have an “anti-money attitude”, unwittingly sabotage their own career prospects and underestimate their value at work. Often they are also co-dependent (meaning they put others’ needs ahead of their own).

Under-earning is a chronic condition that’s not going to be fixed in a day, let alone by reading an article, but awareness of it can start to break decades-long negative cycles. People work through deep-seated issues like using anything from various forms of therapy to mindfulness practice.

The latter approach can help alleviate financial stresses and strains at two levels. “Mindfulness practice won’t necessarily change your earnings,” says Andrew Fleming.

“But it will give you a new awareness of what you are doing and help change your approach to what and how you spend and what you earn.”

He says regular mindfulness practice will help people clearly see the reality of their situation, “instead of being stuck … with your mind racing 100 miles an hour” – and will give you the calm to deal with it. And you’ll need that calmness because negative, even painful feelings are likely to come out of seeing the realities behind your financial stress.

“Frustration and discomfort can be sign of a breakthrough, a new awareness” Fleming says.

“It might help you take action, perhaps asking for a pay rise and being confident when doing so, having an authentic conversation with the boss or it might put you into gear to pursue a better-paid vocation, either within the same company, the same industry or by doing something totally new.”

How to stop spending too much at Christmas

Christmas is by far the busiest time of the year for shopping and many of us deal with the pressure and financial stress of the annual retail frenzy with an increasingly popular new behaviour – self-gifting.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of self-gifting, you might be just a bit in denial. Think of it as December retail therapy: we all know that feeling – we are out shopping for Christmas gifts and we see a sexy new gadget, T-shirt with a funny slogan or a stylish home accessory in a store and realise the person it would be a perfect present for is actually ourselves. So, we buy it, you know, as a treat!

Retail therapy sounds nice – we fool ourselves it’s ok because it’s a type of therapy and we are told: “Therapy: Good!”

Retail therapy is of course popular all year round, especially after a shocking week at work, or an argument with our partner, or when we’re just feeling the blues.

But is it therapeutic if we buy non-essential to just manage predictable and recurring stress? Or is it really impulse spending?

Spending money impulsively can make us ‘feel better’ and ‘more alive’. But it can be a serious problem if this is something we begin to do regularly, especially with expensive items, as a way of coping. And let’s face it, jobs and relationships – and life in general – can be stressful for extended periods. New COVID-19 lockdowns are also very stressful especially on the eve of Christmas.

Data on impulse spending is contradictory – with one survey showing Aussies claim to have reduced our impulse buying while another shows that more than three quarters of us impulse buy when we shop via mobile. So it’s helpful to define it: when react to temptation by mindlessly spending money we haven’t budgeted on.

According to a poll of 1003 consumers by US website creditcards.com, five out of six Americans admit to impulse buying. One in five people had spent more than US$1000 on impulse, which rose to one in three for people earning over US$75,000.

Seven strategies to manage your impulse buying

  1. You are much less likely to buy on impulse if you plan your shopping trip therefore write a shopping list before you go.
  2. Avoid sales (or nominate an item you want and don’t break that agreement with yourself). A price discount is a real trigger for impulse spenders often buying things they don’t need.
  3. Don’t shop when you are emotional.
  4. Remind yourself of your longer-term financial goals before you spend.
  5. Wait a day before you purchase non-essential items.
  6. Make a budget for spending on ‘extras’ or treats and stick to it.
  7. Eat before you leave home to shop, this avoids spending extra money on food items as you will not be hungry during shopping time.

It’s not a huge leap to switch from a default state of mindless impulse spending to one of financial mindfulness– which means having awareness and paying attention to your finances and financial behaviours.

Working through complex and difficult problems that may trigger impulse buying is of course not easy. But let’s not forget what a hugely painful thing financial stress is. Ask yourself honestly, is your impulse buying adding to your financial stress? It’s a question worth pausing to consider honestly.

Financial worries are now accepted as a leading cause of stress in people’s lives throughout the western world.  Impulse spending therefore just compounds the problem.

The real costs of gift-giving: Financial stress (part 2 of 3)

Who wants to buy something special for their partner, relative, friend or colleague on Black Friday or this Christmas? It’s a thoughtful idea given how tough 2020 has been – with bushfires, then the COVID-19 pandemic, various lockdowns and financial stress coming at Australians in waves all year.

If we are not aware of our underlying financial stress at this time of year, advertising pressure can trick us into an expensive false reality: that our usual safe spending limits don’t apply when it comes to proving our care for others. It’s sad to think we actually believe that the price of gifts should be in proportion to what people mean to us – and yet our national gift-giving habits suggests we overlook the damaging realities of money stress at the checkout.

Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, argued “there is a higher logic to the gift economy … that mandates we keep giving and receiving objects of dubious value”.

Gift-giving, she wrote, was connected to “an innate human value called “reciprocal altruism” which makes the costs of gifts “a maintenance fee for your relationship”.

There are of course, real problems beyond warm and fuzzy feelings when altruism is all about money.

As well-intentioned as gift-giving is, the Christmas rush to buy gifts is sometimes only ‘generous’ financially; how often is our gift something the recipient really needs and will use? Often, we believe we are too busy to understand our recipients real wants and needs. When we go into this kind of autopilot thinking, we can’t see that we are setting ourselves up for financial stress and its many impacts on our relationships, our work, and potentially making any existing anxiety and depression worse.

Research by Joseph Goodman (from Washington State University) and Sarah Lim (from Seoul’s Center for Happiness Studies) found people commonly buy material gifts over experiential gifts, despite the fact that recipients often feel happier receiving experiences. Material gifts are those we can touch while experiential gifts are those that create a memory.

So, gift-giving becomes a stressful problem which we solve with money – by buying the latest expensive gadget, a heavily-marketed ‘luxury’ or some kind of timeless status symbol.

If it sounds mean-spirited to question gift-giving, that’s not the intention here. Only narcissists and debt collectors (and the occasional teenager) believe it’s better to receive than to give. The problems raised here are not about gift-giving per se, it’s the headless chook race that it can resemble – and the financial stress and strain placed on many of us.

Last Christmas Australians splurged a mammoth A$28 billion on credit cards, according to finder.com.au – over $1,100 for every many woman and child. Add the costs of Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries and you can see how gift-buying has become a major driver of the retail engine in Western economies. Of course, it’s a double-edged sword: retail spending is celebrated each year as a measurement of the strength of the economy. But at a personal level, buying gifts for everyone, and without mindful budgetary limits, will likely cause financial stress.

Debt consistently shows up in surveys as a leading cause of financial stress. But it’s now widely known personal money problems consistently show up in research as a major cause – if not the major cause – of stress in general.

The links between financial stress and poor mental health are well known, but recently the physical symptoms are being acknowledged and links to serious physical illness are emerging. In the United States, the company Four Seasons Financial Education surveyed 511 employees in a national study and found disturbing correlations between financial stress and health problems. The respondents rated their level of financial stress, then the prevalence of health issues between two groups was compared.

People with high financial stress had higher reported incidence of health issues across all nine illnesses identified – heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, infertility, gastrointestinal issues and sleeplessness, migraines/headaches and memory loss.

“The greatest disparities were found with anxiety and depression between these two groups,” the study findings said. In the groups with lower financial stress, 19 per cent reported depression and anxiety, but amongst the more financially stressed respondents, 55 per cent were depressed and 68 per cent had anxiety.

When the survey responses were further broken down, into the very highest and lowest levels of financial stress, people under extreme financial stress were five times more likely to have memory loss issues, more three times as likely to report depression and nearly twice as likely to have anxiety. They were also twice as likely to have gastrointestinal problems.

Debt is a major cause of financial stress and the search for an answer has become a popular google search term in its own right, with variations of ‘how do I relieve my financial stress?’ common. If you’ve tried all the usual advice and methods, it might be time to investigate a new approach, or at least, new tools to supplement what you are already doing.

In the final part of our series on the real cost of gift-giving, we look at how mindfulness can help reign in over-spending and the financial stress that often comes from increasing your debt burden at this time of year.

The real cost of gift-giving: Financial stress (part 1 of 3)

The tinsel and decorations are still under the stairs, but now is the time to think ahead so that you don’t join millions of Australians saddled repaying holiday debt well into 2021.

One of the leading pressures on many people’s already-strained financial position is the habit of over-spending on gifts; gifts that don’t necessarily prove our love for others. In this three-part series we will explore the size of our national gift-buying problem, look at the health impacts of the financial stress that follows and then explore how a targeted mindfulness practice can help change the auto-pilot approach to gift-giving while potentially bringing us even closer to loved ones.

There is also a real likelihood that gift-giving becomes retail therapy in these stressful COVID times – a set of behaviours we use to try and feel a bit better. But as Financial Mindfulness has found, overspending has the opposite effect on our stress levels.

Overall, Australian households spent an average of A$969 on Christmas gifts in 2019 (the total spend on gifts was expected to be $18.8 billion) according to finder.com.au. Last December alone, A$28 billion was spent on cards, with millions more put on Buy Now Pay Later accounts too, which a third of us now have.

Nearly half a million of us will take up to six months to pay off holiday debts, while more than half of us still manage a spending binge for on Valentine’s Day (with Buy Now Pay Later schemes increasingly funding this). All this while also juggling mortgage, student loan and/or car repayments.

The national home loan bill this year topped A$2 trillion for the first time, according to Illion, with an estimated 60,000 mortgage holders at least one month behind on repayments.

But while we are weighed down with unavoidable repayments on big assets, the retail calendar rolls on. Easter is next (luckily the major supermarkets stock around 50 lines of chocolate each, not counting millions of Easter buns), then comes Mother’s Day (May 14), when consumer spending spikes to around $2 billion, according to the Australian Retail Association.

From mid-year there’s often a string of birthdays to buy for: the most popular months for birthdays in Australia include May, July, August, September and October, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Anyone who has hosted a children’s birthday party knows how expensive and high pressure they can be, with parents forking out anywhere between A$300 and A$3000. Then there’s the angst over how to please teenagers and other loved ones, a worry which is almost always settled by spending at or above our absolute limit.

Around this time, many of us come to accept we can’t afford a splurge we might want – such as a later winter or spring holiday, or a newer car – with so many expenses and December just around the corner.

The pre-holiday gift-giving hasn’t finished yet. Father’s Day is September 3, (on which about A$700 million is spent), followed by weddings and wedding anniversaries galore as the weather warms up. Spring and autumn are most popular seasons, April, September, October and November are the most popular months to get married.

At the end of November, comes the newish retail binge-fest that is Black Friday, when we spent $2.9 billion over that weekend alone.

While it seems like the right thing to show our love by buying new toys, trinkets, treats and gadgets for children, family and friends the cost is in black and white in our online statements.

We spend thousands upon thousands of dollars each year to try and please loved ones, when if the tables were turned, most of us would be happy receiving thoughtful, inexpensive gifts – or even just spending time with friends and loved ones if we knew they were battling financially.

According to the most recent data from the Financial Mindfulness – Financial Stress Index (FSI) Report – September 2020, the vast majority (89%) of us are worried about money. Digging deeper, we are completely overwhelmed (79%), downhearted (82%) and distracted (77%) by our financial situation. Financial Mindfulness estimates the resulting lost productivity costs Australian businesses is $32.14 billion per annum.

AMP’s 2020 Financial Wellness Report in November 2020 found financially stressed employees are ineffective at work for approximately 7.7 hours a week, and absent for a further 1.2 hours a week through sick days.

The report said nearly half of Australian workers are feeling financially stressed for an average of six and a half years or more.

To find out how financial stress affects our health, check out part two in this three part series.

Contactless payments surge 44% during COVID-19 as shoppers fear germs

Credit card giant Mastercard reported a major shift in consumer behaviour that has seen 44% of Aussies decrease their use of cash when making purchases in-person since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, as shoppers fear germs on cash.

The research found that more than half (52%) of Aussies are more aware of the dirtiness of cash as a result of COVID-19, while one in five (21%) said the risk of germs has made them not use cash at all.

Eight in ten (79%) of Australians agree contactless payments are a cleaner way to pay.

You can read the full article here.

‘Perfect storm’ of credit card debt brewing for Australians during COVID-19

Rapidly falling incomes, a move to card-only payments and a complete avoidance of cash is creating a “perfect storm” for Australians to find themselves in deep financial ruin.
Andrew Fleming, CEO of financial stress-busting app Financial Mindfullness, says many Australians are unaware of the debt they are getting into by relying solely on personal credit.
“There is almost one credit card for every adult Australian. In January 2020 just before the crisis, there was $42.6 billion owing on credit cards with $28.4 billion accruing interest,” explains Mr Fleming.

Read the full article here.

Shop till you Drop – Financial Stress

We are still on holidays, right? Well the majority of us are enjoying the holidays somewhere with our family and friends.  The hangover from Christmas and New Year is all but over, but one hangover that hasn’t left us is our credit card bill from Christmas and the so-called holiday ‘sales’, financial stress looms.

Chances are we still can be engaged in the frenzy of ‘The Stocktake SALE’, ‘The CLEARANCE SALE’, ‘Super Daily Deals’, ‘50 months interest free, no deposit, no interest (read full terms)’, ‘It’s the Season to SAVE BIG’, ‘After Christmas SALE and CLEARANCE’, etc.

That clever marketing pressure can flick a switch in our brains where we go into a kind of ‘trance’, handing over our credit cards, tapping away now in a cashless society on auto-pilot to suppress those logical thoughts of ‘we really shouldn’t be spending so much’.

According to BetaBait.com (a website helping start-ups connect with early adopters), 88 percent of the total impulse purchases are created primarily because the items are on sale. Rather than purchasing useful or necessary items, impulse shoppers buy primarily because it puts them in a better mood. In addition, many impulse purchases are made because people feel that they can’t pass up an extremely attractive offer.  Retailers know this all too well and exploit it.

So, what do we do about it?

In a recent interview by Money and Life last month, I was asked to identify some helpful tips to break the cycle of spending and debt. http://www.moneyandlife.com.au/individuals/family-and-life-events/dealing-stress-debt-christmas/

BetaBait.com also found that when people shop with the purpose of buying immediate needs or forgotten items, the rate of compulsive buying falls by 53 percent.

Exactly how much do we spend on our credit cards?

The Australian Retailers Association expected Australians to spend $50 billion between mid-November and Christmas Eve. Aussie shoppers were tipped to spend a further $18 billion nationwide between Boxing Day and 15 January 2018. According to ARA executive director, Russell Zimmerman, the jump is being driven by online retail. “With Amazon’s recent Australia launch, we are certain that online retail will be a driving force for post-Christmas sales with the ARA and Roy Morgan forecasting the ‘Other Retailing’ category to increase by more than four percent this year.”

Gumtree survey, which has found that Aussies are expecting to spend a staggering $10 billion dollars on Christmas presents alone, equating to more than $700 on gift giving per person. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Gumtree research also found that almost 9 out of 10 Australians (86 percent) find Christmas puts a strain on their finances, with buying Christmas gifts dubbed as the biggest cause (66%) of this pressure.

The annual consumer survey by US company Statista found shoppers expected to spend an average of US$906 on Christmas gifts alone in 2017, not counting other holiday costs and sales spending. This is a massive jump from the 2016 average of US$752. In 2017, Christmas retail sales are forecast to grow to about 680.4 billion U.S. dollars; a 3.8 percent increase from 2016. Net result, Americans seem to be in a generous mood of giving more this year.  Does the Trump effect have anything to do with this?

In Australia, the Credit Card Debt Clock is ticking away and ticking upwards.  The MoneySmart clock shows how much Australians owe on credit cards. With around $32 billion owing, that’s an average of around $4,200 per cardholder. https://www.moneysmart.gov.au/borrowing-and-credit/credit-cards/credit-card-debt-clock

In the US, Americans have now hit a scary milestone, the highest credit card debt in U.S history.  According to the Federal Reserve, Americans had US$1.02 trillion in outstanding revolving credit in Oct 2017. When it comes to individual households, the average American family owes US$8,377.  For the first time since the Great Recession, lenders have given more consumers with sub-prime, or below average, credit scores, access to credit cards, but they are giving them lower spending limits, according to the credit reporting agency TransUnion.

So, what does this impulse spending all mean to our Financial Wellbeing

Answer: Financial Stress.

Financial Mindfulness conducted a survey on Financial Stress in Australia and found 1 in 3 Australians suffer Financial Stress. The results of this press release appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Standard.
Marian Russell, one of Financial Mindfulness Facebook followers shared her personal experience on financial stress in the Sydney Morning Herald article.
New research is constantly being released on the impact financial stress is having on our financial wellbeing and general health worldwide.  According to the European Society of Cardiology, research recently presented at the 18th Annual Congress of the South African Heart Association, significant financial stress is associated with a 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack.

So how can we get through the holidays not regretting our spending, not dreading the bloated repayments to come, then show up to work without that nagging sense of fear that comes from surviving with financial stress?

The answer lies in applying the principles of mindfulness – the proven practice of moment-by-moment awareness – to our finances. It means training our minds to slow down and make decisions that we won’t regret later.
An Australian start-up – Financial Mindfulness – is developing a financial stress reduction program designed to revolutionise the way we think and behave with our money. In the process, we can stay within our means and feel better about ourselves by saying goodbye to the worry of money.

Andrew Fleming
2nd January 2018

Send yourself a valuable gift: get mindful

Why do we spend money to feel good now, even if it’s clearly going to have negative consequences later? And why do we seem to make better decisions if they are planned and not impulsive?

The answers are complex, but just so you really get the idea, first imagine yourself under a lot of stress. Maybe you are working and studying, so you’re always flat-out busy, and there’s no end in sight. Or perhaps one of your parents is gravely ill and it’s hard to communicate about this with siblings you don’t get on with.

So you should feel really stressed.

Then without thinking, say which of these following suggestions sounds like a great idea a/ now, or b / in five years time: buying two pairs of the same fancy shoes you like because they are on sale, or selling your car today for $500 less than you could probably get because a buyer is ready with the cash and you want a weekend away.

You probably favour option a/ in most cases, meaning you want the ‘reward’ now.

Why? Because, according to behavioural scientists, “present rewards are weighted more heavily than future ones. Once rewards are very distant in time, they cease to be valuable,” so says behaivoraleconomics.com.
This was the finding of landmark research done in 2002 by Shane Frederick, George Loewenstein and Ted O’Donohue, and published in the Journal of Economic Literature.

Interestingly, when the reward is delayed, we are more prepared to wait to receive a greater reward. Research shows if given the choice between $100 in a year or $120 in 13 months, we will probably wait.

All this suggests if we plan for the future we are likely to make better decisions about money.  But it depends what that future event is, and how far off it is.
If it’s a skiing holiday in the Canadian Rockies, we will probably swing into action. If it’s retirement at age 70 (as the Australian Federal Government proposes from 2035), that feels somewhat less urgent, even though few would argue it’s more important.

In a 2014 report on savings, the Reserve Bank of Australia showed “younger households place more weight on saving for large purchases and emergencies to smooth near-term consumption rather than saving for longer-term (retirement) consumption.”

“Keys to managing decisions like these are to make those far-off outcomes feel closer,” Peter Sokol-Hessner, assistant professor in the department of psychology at University of Denver, told The Huffington Post.

He suggested “to imagine how you’ll feel when you can use those retirement funds, how grateful you’ll be that your younger self sent this gift into the future.”

If that sounds like a fairy story, there is research to back up the idea that we are more careful as ‘our future selves’. A study run by UCLA Anderson School of Management in 2011 found when people visualised themselves as 70 and were asked to imagine what they’d do with a $1000 windfall, they put more than twice as much money towards their retirement as those who were asked to visualise themselves now. They were more likely to choose short-term options like planning an extravagant outing or buying someone a gift.
So where does mindfulness come in?

Let’s be clear: a mindfulness practice, even one focused on money, isn’t going to directly impact your Canadian Rockies ski fund, let alone your retirement savings.

But if undertaken consistently, a mindfulness practice could help change the decisions you currently unconsciously make about spending.
For instance, you may decide to do extra research before selling your car or home, looking more carefully at trends and brainstorming other ways to find ready cash.

It does that by increasing time between your thoughts: that well-worn but accurate metaphor of busy thoughts as clouds against a blue sky that represents an untroubled mind.

“Thoughts are like clouds,” says Financial Mindfulness’s Chief Mindfulness Officer Tomas Jajesnica.

“When you can see more sky and less clouds you start to move out of an immediate, involuntary response state and towards the type of thought where you could think about your ‘future self’.”

A big benefit of a regular practice is a buffer against the power of marketing, he says. Think about the hype involved around the release of the next stage of a sought-after apartment development: it’s in the interests of a real estate agent to get you into a feeding frenzy state with other potential buyers, so the stage sells put, the project can go up and the next stage goes into marketing overdrive.

“But it’s not just effective in dealing with real estate,” Jajesnica says.
“A lot of marketing works on the idea of scarcity and urgency; some saying ‘quick, there’s only 100 in stock’ , or ‘hurry, it’s a brand new order’, or whatever. Marketing works on you by getting you to make a decision right now.

“A mindfulness process will help you to buy things rather than just be sold to.
“It’ll allow you to come from your own space, consider the consequences of your actions and respond by making decisions, rather than be manipulated by marketing.”

The real cost of gift-giving (part 3 of 3)

Giving gifts in ancient history began as a show of worship and over centuries has morphed into a show of appreciation. In the age of consumerism it’s become an expensive habit too, especially in Holiday season.

That said gifts are costs we bear without much complaint; giving feels good and it’s accepted as a cultural obligation. Besides, we have special labels for people who don’t play along: ever fear being labelled a Scrooge or Grinch?

Never mind that in the affluent West that many of us take months to repay debts incurred around Christmas time. So who’s not at least relieved that the annual festival of overspending is out of the way, right?

Wrong. The retail calendar is about to double face‐smack time‐poor, overworked consumers with Easter then Mother’s Day – not to mention birthdays and anniversaries for the rest of the year. So how can we possibly avoid the financial stress that comes from piling debt on top of debt?

Most of us are savvy enough to try and budget (even if they can’t always stick to it) and humble enough to get financial advice to try and do better. We are not clueless.

But without a complete overhaul in our thinking, choosing gifts will always be stressful – at the overwhelming array of options and the nagging temptation to over‐spend.

If you have tried every trick to rein in spending on gifts perhaps it’s time to try something new – mindfulness, which is loosely described as moment‐by‐moment awareness.

Take the example of a teenager who apparently aches for a sleek iPhone 7 for their birthday, if not the newest flagship Apple phone, an iPhone 8. These will set you back between $1000 and $1500. “Cravings tell some people they will be happy if they have the latest iPhone,” says Tomas Jajesnica, Chief Mindfulness Officer with Financial Mindfulness.

“And they might feel happy when they get one, but as an approach to life that is false. Having an iPhone has nothing to do with happiness.”

The reason that statement feels uncomfortable is because it’s true. Researchers from Washington University and Seoul National University, Joseph Goodman and Sarah Lim, found that giving ‘experiences’ increases the happiness of recipients more than material gifts – even if people are not socially close.

Hence the boom for online companies selling “experiential” gifts: in Australia, RedBalloon; in the UK, Red Letter Days and in the United States, retailers like Cloud 9 Living and Great American Days.

But focusing on experiential as opposed to material gifts is unarguably only half of the answer. While the research shows a hot‐air balloon ride or chocolate‐making course should satisfy the recipient more than boxed gift wrapped in a bow, if you try to please someone with the dollar value of your gift your debt problems could get worse and that is undeniably a problem for your whole life. Ever looked at the cost of sky‐diving, rodeo‐riding or maybe cage diving with sharks? You will spend hundreds of dollars on these.

Financial stress is irrefutably linked to health problems like depression, anxiety and sleep disorders so it’s not a big leap to see that the expensive gifts you buy – whether material or experiential ‐ could paradoxically lead you to feel less likely to connect with other people.

Most of us know overspending will put pressure on us, but since when did knowing right from wrong stop human beings from making mistakes? A parent, relative or partner with poor self‐control around money will often buckle to badgering from a child, or give into a yearning to people‐please, and buy that new smart phone, tablet, a holiday or even a car.

A daily mindfulness practice will lead to a more mindful approach to gift‐giving, so we do not drift into autopilot when buying. It’s inevitable this will lead us to confront some fundamental uncomfortable truths about money. “Mindfulness will help you accept reality as it is,” Jajesnica says. “That if you purchase this [phone] it may put pressure on all other elements of your life.”
It’s important to note mindfulness won’t automatically change your financial circumstances – although it could help you begin to change in that area. From there we can make some deep, meaningful changes: when we are forced to face old assumptions about money. “The idea that the amount of money we spend on someone is a measure of your love for someone is completely false,” says Jajesnica. “It’s a product of consumerism that we need to spend in order to be loving.”

“In first world countries we have third‐world happiness, but countries in Africa have first world happiness.”

Which brings us back to gifts. You can create lasting memories with creativity and knowledge of a person.

How about home‐made cookies baked with personal messages – each describing why you love the recipient ‐ hidden in the dough? Or a hand‐made recipe book containing meal suggestions from the recipient’s family members? Maybe get a t‐shirt printed with the recipient’s favourite funny saying or if you have time, plan a surprise outing and put thought into favourite stops and a destination, or even fill a tall jar with inspirational quotes written and printed in different colours.

If you have lots of time, learn the guitar then write someone a song and play it for them. If you don’t have much time, spend a couple of hours hand‐writing a letter telling the recipient what they mean to you. Could any gift feel better and teach about the real meaning of value?

Time is key idea here, you need to know someone or learn about them to know what might make them happy. And time is valuable. Benjamin Franklin was widely credited with the unforgettable line “time is money” in 1748 (although it’s been shown to have much earlier origins, perhaps even ancient Greece). We can spend money and time, but where spending too much money will cause you a lot of trouble, spending a lot of time only enhances relationships – especially on children – by creating last memories.

Tomas Jajesnica: “Time is so much more precious than anything you can buy someone.”

The real cost of gift-giving (part 2 of 3)

Our expensive habit of gift-giving is, roughly speaking, a material indicator of the value of one person to another.  Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, argued “there is a higher logic to the gift economy … that mandates we keep giving and receiving objects of dubious value”.

Gift-giving, she said, was connected to “an innate human value called “reciprocal altruism” which makes the costs of gifts “a maintenance fee for your relationship”. All of this is warm (and as McArdle noted) fuzzy too. There are however real problems beyond conceptual warm fuzzy feelings.

As well-intentioned as gift-giving is, the reality is seldom that altruistic exercise in thoughtfully considered generosity. Most of us are time-poor and simply don’t know our recipents’ real wants and needs.

Research by Joseph Goodman (from Washington State University) and Sarah Lim (from Seoul’s Center for Happiness Studies) found people often buy material over experiential gifts, despite the fact that recipients often feel happier receiving experiences. Material gifts are those we can touch while experiential gifts are those that create a memory.

So gift-giving becomes a box-ticking exercise which we throw money at, then wrap up with a bow, just to be safe.

If it sounds mean-spirited to question gift-giving, that’s not the intention here. Only sociopaths, teenagers and debt collectors believe it’s better to receive than give. The problem is not gift-giving per se, it’s the mindless, bloated headless chook race that it becomes.

Last Christmas Australians splurged a mammoth A$28 billion on gifts alone on our credit cards – A$1272 for every many woman and child in Australia. Add the costs of Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries and you can see how gift-buying has become a major driver of the retail engine in Western economies. But at a personal level, buying gifts for everyone, and without tight budgetary limits, starts to look like a recipe for accumulating unnecessary debt.

Debt consistently shows up in surveys as a leading cause of financial stress. So what you might think, who isn’t under stress these days? But it’s now widely known personal money pressures are consistently showing up in research as a major cause – if not the major cause – of stress in general.
Now new American research shows what the end result of financial stress could be: high levels of serious illness. In the United States, the company Four Seasons Financial Education surveyed 511 employees in a national study and found disturbing correlations between financial stress and health problems.
The respondents rated their level of financial stress,  then the prevalence of health issues between two groups was compared.

People with high financial stress had higher reported incidence of health issues across all nine illnesses identified – heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, infertility, gastrointestinal issues and sleeplessness, migraines/headaches and memory loss.

“The greatest disparities were found with anxiety and depression between these two groups,” the study findings said. In the groups with lower financial stress, 19 per cent reported depression and anxiety, but amongst the more financially stressed respondents, 55 per cent were depressed and 68 per cent had anxiety.

When the survey responses were further broken down, into the very highest and lowest levels of financial stress, people under extreme financial stress were five times more likely to have memory loss issues, more three times as likely to report depression and nearly twice as likely to have anxiety. They were also twice as likely to have gastrointestinal problems.

Debt is a major cause for financial stress, so we are surely obliged to use whatever means we can use to reduce it. If you’ve tried all the usual advice and methods, it might be time to investigate a new approach.

In the final part of our series on the real cost of gift-giving, we look at how mindfulness can help reign in the costs of gift-giving and the intense pressure we can feel around it.