Ah, December, and the annual battle of the bulge. Not the holiday cookie bulge (or not just that), but the holiday present bulge. The certain knowledge that we've spent more money than we intended.
Why do we do it? Partly, from childhood memories of the wonders of Christmas morning. I remember piles of presents (gifts for small children can be so cheap). Today, I love to see my grandchildren ri-i-i-pping through wrapping paper, just as I did at their age.
As children grow up, that gets expensive. So adjustments must be made. But to me, a Christmas tree never looks well-dressed unless it has stacks of boxes below, even if the boxes contain only little things.
Santa Claus, incidentally, flies around the world and not just to Christian families. Some children get Hanukkah presents plus a second round on Dec. 25.
My sister, Laurie Young, who has lived in many different countries, has seen Santa's sleigh coast across a swimming pool in Bombay, India, with gifts for Hindu children. She says he also drops in on many Muslim families in Jordan and lights up the thoroughfares in Japan and Hong Kong.
The worldwide economy gets a boost this time of year. Everyone gets to overspend.
Women do most of the Christmas shopping, says Dr. Eileen Fischer, of the Schulich School of Business at York University in Canada, who studies psychology and marketing.
When a man shops, she says, he tends to buy one gift to show his feelings for a special person in his life.
Women, by contrast, give many gifts to establish or reinforce relationships -- not just with spouses and children but with in-laws, co-workers, friends and domestic helpers. They're affirming the social web, Ms. Fischer says, which is what gift giving is really about.
But you might reconsider how widely you spread your social web. Do all those relationships have to be maintained with gifts? If so, will cookies do?
If you've been exchanging gifts with too many people or gifts that cost too much, you can't disarm unilaterally. Both parties have to decide to stop. "Talk about it," Ms. Fischer urges. "Agree that you won't spend so much next year."
That's what happened in her family and mine, too. We five Bryant children always exchanged gifts growing up. But as we married and had children of our own, our lists were getting out of hand.
Happily, our mother intervened and suggested that we all exchange cards instead of gifts (what a smart woman!). Ms. Fischer says you might start the conversation by asking, "Isn't there a simpler way of celebrating?"
If you're still shopping at this late date, you're at maximum danger of spending too much. You don't have enough time to think. When you hit the stores and hear the Christmas music, you'll pass into a coma and won't wake up until your credit card bounces.
To keep your head, try these tricks for last-minute shopping:
1 -- Make your list as specific as possible. If you want a CD, know which CD. Otherwise you'll rummage through them all, finding one for your giftee and two for yourself.
2 -- Next to each person's name on the list, note how much you plan to spend.
3 -- Keep track of what you've bought. You might wind up with extra gifts for one of the children, because you've forgotten what you already have.
4 -- Shop with a willing "buying partner." Adrienne Toghraie of Cary, N.C., who writes about the psychology of investing, says she likes to shop with her mother, who checks the price tags and gently reminds her to keep on budget.
5 -- Don't buy anything for yourself! I've come home from shopping trips with three things for friends and three things for me, which is no way to keep to a budget.
6 -- Before you go shopping, add up your current consumer debt and put the total at the top of your shopping list. It can't hurt to be reminded, every time something more goes into the bag.
Promise yourself that, next Christmas, you'll avoid the year-end rush. Buy gifts year 'round, especially when you see a sale. Keep a Christmas shelf so presents won't get lost. Solicit specific requests from your family by September, so you can be on the lookout.
When you shop that way, you don't load up your credit card, because you're not buying everything at once. Ideally, you'll pay every bill at the end of the month. For you, that would be the very best Christmas gift of all.