In 2020, we experienced a holiday season like no other. Because of COVID-19, we had to adjust our gatherings, our plans, and even our traditions in unexpected ways.

However, that didn’t seem to hinder our holiday shopping much. Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that, even though retail sales were slightly down in December 2020 compared with the previous month, overall spending was up for the season as well as year over year.

What is it about the holidays that makes us so happy to spend on others—despite the crowds and other headaches, such as the massive shipping delays many experienced in 2020? And how can you maximize the experience to make it joyful instead of jarring? As it turns out, the spirit of the season, and your sanity, can be salvaged with some sound strategy.

WHY WE LOVE HOLIDAY SHOPPING

Think about this: countless people are willing to forgo sleep, wait in line for hours, and cram into stores to buy holiday gifts—or, in the case of the stay-at-home shopper, scour Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals for hours on end. It’s enough to ramp up the stress and anxiety tenfold, which seems antithetical to the holiday season. So why do we do it?

There are a few reasons. First, people innately love deals,
and Black Friday is always seen as the Mount Everest of bargain-hunting. Also, every year, we’re introduced to the “It” gifts out there that everyone’s pining to get for loved ones, especially children’s toys, and that often requires sacrifice.

If you’re able to score one, you feel the same adrenaline surge as you would when holding a winning lottery ticket.

And that feeling is only amplified by the omnipresent limited-time restrictions, whether it’s a sale that ends on a Friday or special pricing that is only available until 10:00 a.m.

In short, there’s more than one meaning for the term “holiday rush.”

There’s also the social aspect of it. Perhaps shopping on Black Friday is an annual tradition for you and your best friend. Or it might be a good way to get out and enjoy yourself with family members after being cooped up inside all day on Thanksgiving. And then there’s the overall community experience when you’re out shopping: everyone is there together for the same reason and seeking the same enjoyment, similar to being at a concert or a sporting event. On top of it all, you’re inundated with the sights, smells, and sounds of the season. Who could resist that?

SIX KEY QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

Actually, it’s not so much about resisting as it is staying in control. With the aforementioned sensory, social, and sales overloads, it might be difficult to avoid losing yourself in holiday bliss—and regretting it later when the bills pour in.

So perhaps the best way to control your holiday shopping is to revisit certain basic questions, commonly known as the five Ws: Who? What? When? Where? and Why? as well as their cousin, How? You may very well be surprised by how doing so can make your holiday shopping less stressful and more enjoyable.

How will you go about this?

Determining how you will pay for all this goodwill will relate to all the other answers you discover. Make sure to set a reasonable budget from the get-go, set a limit for each person, and, if possible, use cash only.

Who are you out there for?

Answering this question may be harder than you think. Your immediate family and close friends will probably make the list, but where is the cutoff? Before you shop, take as much time as possible to feel comfortable with your decision. Otherwise, you may experience major angst.

Just as important, don’t forget about you. Remember that you’re out there to enjoy yourself. Be sure to dress comfortably and stay hydrated. And if you see something you’d like for yourself as you’re shopping, take note and leave a suggestion for someone else to buy it for you.

What are you planning to buy?

In contrast, this may actually be the easiest question to answer if you do your homework, make a list (and check it twice) based on your spending limit, and don’t deviate from it. While you’re at it, make a Plan B for your shopping wish list, just in case certain items are sold out or not available.

When will you shop?

I used to think people who started holiday shopping in September were odd, but now I understand their wisdom. However, even if you plan to shop during the season, keep an eye out for good sales throughout the year based on inventory. In October, for example, you can find good deals on items like jeans, while you can avoid the rush and wait until January to get great deals on TVs.

The day of the week may be meaningful as well. Sure, both Black Friday and Cyber Monday offer great sales, but you and your gift recipients may get even more joy out of giving back, which shopping on Small Business Saturday and Giving Tuesday allows. And you won’t be alone in your community focus: both events achieved record numbers in 2020, despite the pandemic.

Wherever you go, avoid peak shopping times. If you’re planning to shop at a local strip mall that has extended hours until midnight, for example, go later—there should be fewer people and less competition

Where will you shop?

The most basic decision is whether you opt for online shopping, in-person shopping, or a little of both. Whatever you choose, do so with a plan. For example, if you are driving to different stores for must-have gifts, map out your trip beforehand: know approximately what time you want to arrive and how much time you want to spend at each store before you leave.

Why are you shopping?

Finally, we get to the most important question of all. Is it out of obligation? Is it to check something off your massive holiday to-do list? Is it a competition to give the best gift?

The simple answer: joy. The best way to minimize the stress of holiday shopping is to always remember that, like everything holiday-related, giving gifts is about happiness. The happiness of the shopping experience. The happiness you’ll bring to others (just for thinking of them). And the happiness you’ll get from giving to others.

Ultimately, that’s truly what the season is all about.