This is the time of the year when American consumers become focused like a laser on finding deals from retailers. There is some compulsion to buy more stuff as the holidays approach — as gifts for friends and family, in the spirit of Christmas and Hanukkah, and as gifts for ourselves. After all, with the supposed great discounts, everyone deserves a little material satisfaction.
Over the last few years, a big industry has developed around Black Friday. Companies are dedicated to aggregating Black Friday ads, helping consumers find the lowest prices for their favorite doodads and trinkets. Websites spring into action in the months leading up to the holidays, offering price alerts via email and text message to those willing to sign up. Smartphone apps count down the days until the day after Thanksgiving and give those with iPhones an idea of where they can buy their next iPhone at the best price.
Overall, the idea of Black Friday is a hoax, but it’s a good hoax. Shoppers — those who survive the trampling in the stores and buy what they want while supplies last — feel good about getting a deal. It’s a psychological advantage. The thrill of the hunt might be a human instinct left in our genetic code hundreds of generations after hunting for survival was an everyday part of life. With the progression of the internet and social media, finding good deals has been gamified, with those who participate with urgency being rewarded as deal winners. It’s the further acceleration of the materialistic mindset going back at least as far as the retail industry has existed.
Feeling good about finding a deal, however, requires willful ignorance of the true nature of capitalism. Deal finders believe they are beating the system. For example, I recently purchased a new digital SLR camera. I followed a website known letting its readers know about the lowest prices on the latest equipment, and I jumped on the chance to buy this latest piece of technology several hundred dollars less than the street price. I read experts’ expectations about future prices for the camera, based on past pricing patterns. I accepted that this was probable the best price I might be able to get for at least six months, and this was a piece of equipment I wanted, so I pulled the trigger before the deal disappeared.
I might have paid less for the same camera than many other customers paid around the same time, thanks to the attention I paid to the prices, but I didn’t beat the system. Overall, the company I purchased the item from knew that lowering the price to that point would draw in more sales, making up for the lost per-item profit with volume profit. My purchase played right into the retailer’s plan.
Does that matter, as long as I’m getting a good deal? Many people would say no. But it does matter if I think in any way that finding deals makes me a superior shopper. The system is designed with deals in mind. The only way to beat this system and save money in the long term is to separate yourself from the materialistic experience as much as possible, especially around the holidays. Deals, and the positive feelings associated with scoring a great price, just make people shop and spend more overall. The only real way to “win” Black Friday is to refrain from playing.
If society stopped paying attention to deals and avoided shopping, the economy, based so much on retail performance, would slow to a halt. So there are shoppers who justify excessive spending with the idea that they’re helping the economy. You don’t have to be an economic martyr, however. Sacrificing the stability of your bank account for the sake of the nation is not honorable, because the nation will do you no such favors in return.
Although here and there, there are some people who are willing to put down their wallets for the holidays, it’s not realistic to ask people to stop buying presents for each other. It’s a custom entrenched in society’s shared consciousness. And there’s no reason to expect people should even consider spending less. Many people are in a financial position where a reasonable gift-giving season will not significantly damage their long term prospects for achieving financial independence. Some people could greatly benefit from curbed spending, however, when it requires a sacrifice of savings or something more important than having the latest gadgets, like a retirement above poverty level or like education.
Spiritually, there may be something that can be gained from a shift of focus from consumerism towards family or some other outlet. That’s for each individual to decide. The idea, however, that holidays have “lost their true meaning” as a result of excess consumerism is a mistake. Some who rally against the materialism of modern Christmas, for example, often argue that Christmas should be about spending time with family and spreading love; other rally against both approaches and believe Christmas should be about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Most seem to ignore the fact that the holiday had roots before Christianity itself, when festivals coincided with the change of seasons and astronomical observances like the change in the length of days, and had no purpose other than to mark those times with celebrations. The method of celebration in those pre-Christian times would probably not look so different than how we celebrate today, with the holidays invading many aspects of our everyday lives, with increased anticipation each year beginning months prior. I’ve seen friends observing that the holiday-themed marketing began much earlier than usual this year — but this is the same observation I’ve heard every year for as long as I’ve been aware of people’s need to observe and comment on society’s approach to holidays.
There are many options for those who wish to curb spending during the holiday season, particularly during the hyped Black Friday madness. Avoid it completely, if you like. If it makes you feel better, buy nothing on Black Friday, though that will just move your shopping to another day and force you to possibly pay more than you would have for the same items. Offset your spending with Giving Tuesday, a non-profit movement to increase charitable giving during the holiday season.
Or, if it suits you and you recognize that you may not be fully in control of the spending decisions you think you’re making, go about your business, continue to play a role as a reliable cog in the Black Friday marketing machine without much thought. It’s fine to want to spend money, but the best way to do that is to take a thoughtful approach, looking beyond the hoax of the Black Friday deal, and consider the consequences to your finances before you swipe your credit card or otherwise complete your purchase.
What are your plans for this year’s Black Friday?
Published or updated November 20, 2012.