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Mental health stressors

Why debt and holiday gifting can be a bad psychological combination

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It’s down to last days before Christmas and things are getting desperate.

You’ve put off booking your flight home, and now it’s $400 more expensive than you planned (and as your mom constantly reminds you, if you just moved closer to her you wouldn’t have to worry about any of this). Your supervisor at work gave you a $50 gift card for the holidays, and now you’re stuck wondering what you’re expected to leave on her desk tomorrow. Meanwhile, you’re still scrambling to find that perfect gift for your girlfriend of two months that toes the line between incredibly thoughtful and “super laid back about this whole thing and not rushing to put labels on it.” Toss in some hefty servings of mulled wine and eggnog, and the most wonderful time of the year can prompt a full-on anxiety attack.


It’s a particularly stressful for time for people who are struggling to balance their expectations for the holidays with the realities of their bank accounts. The average consumer debt in Canada now tops over $22,000 a person, and that doesn’t even include things like student loans or mortgages. But the pressure to deliver that “perfect Christmas gift” or look extra stunning at your ex’s holiday party doesn’t stop just because you’re maxed out, and every year more people sink deeper into holiday debt, and come January, deep depressions.

Eva Wong, co-founder of Borrowell, a Canadian startup that offers personal loans and free credit score tests, has observed the crunch firsthand. Last month, a survey commissioned by her company found that over 30 percent of Canadians are currently carrying a balance on their credit card.

“People want to show their love and appreciation to others during the holiday season, and they feel an obligation to buy things to do it.” says Wong. “It’s not only presents. It’s going out, it’s travelling, and it adds up.”

It turns out that your addiction to Taylor Swift’s Instagram account and your old roommate’s perfectly curated Christmas Pintrest board might partly be to blame. Toronto-based psychologist Dr. Oren Amitay has noticed an explosion in clients who are struggling to reconcile their own lifestyle with what they see on social media. Dr. Amitay identifies this tendency as “social comparison,” and in his experience, “it crushes people.”


This type of feeling can strike anytime, but it particularly ramps up during the holidays. For two months we’re bombarded with overly sentimental ad campaigns promising some perfect Christmas experience that’s impossible to live up to. What, every year your family doesn’t dance through snowy fields in slow motion, then cuddle up together to drink cocoa by the fireplace? Well, maybe if you bought your parents a $600 armchair they’d stop arguing long enough for you to Snapchat your own perfect holiday tableau. “We know it’s an airbrushed picture of life, but we still fall prey to it,” sighs Dr. Amitay.

Dr. Amitay also witnessed the emotional fallout from this kind of rampant seasonal consumerism. “The holidays have so many expectations around them,” says Dr. Amitay. “We’re all trying to keep up with the Jones, let alone the Kardashians, and there can be a real sense of futility if someone has financial difficulties.” Especially come January, once we’re hit with the realizations that A) all that stuff we bought didn’t fix our messed-up families B) our credit card statements are three pages long.

So now that we know that we’re irrational people who make terrible decisions out of jealousy, pride, and misplaced generosity, where do we go from here?

According to Wong, if you want to protect your mental health before you’re stuck at the dinner table next to your uncle and his hot take on the migrant crisis, make a spending plan. “I know, it’s really not that exciting to talk about budgets, but setting one will make you feel so much better in the long run,” says Wong. “The pleasure you get from spending today is really short lived, while studies show that carrying a balance on your credit card makes you feel depressed and ashamed over the long term.”

Dr. Amitay has some more wise words for people who are still struggling to stick their holiday budgets. “You’re able to still enjoy the holidays, have fun, and feel worthy through means that don’t involve a lot money,” he says. “Ask yourself why you’re doing something. Do I really need this product? Do I need to go to that party? Will it really make me a happier person? And then hopefully you’ll make the right choice.”

And when the temptation to outdo your Facebook friend hits — and it always does — Dr. Amitay’s advice is a little more blunt: “Stay away from the needle, don’t inject it. Log off.”