Rachel Anderson: The post-holiday debt hangover

Christians may or may not have initiated the commercialization of Christmas, but we bear a responsibility to help heal its wounds.

Months after the snow has melted and the ornaments have been put away, millions of Americans will still be paying off Christmas bills. Christmas debt and the post-holiday debt hangover are depressingly familiar stories in the holiday news cycles.

In the mainstream news, the commentator wraps up the story with a list of tips to moderate spending and avoid debt. In religious circles, commercial excess serves as foil for the true meaning of Christmas. This message comes in multiple forms. As a child, my church handed out stickers proclaiming “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” A more modern version is the Advent Conspiracy’s exhortation to worship fully, spend less, give more, during the holidays.  In spite of this, many Americans, including many Christians, remain deep in holiday debt.

Social scientists increasingly demonstrate how vulnerable people are to indebtedness. When it comes to money, we often react with “predictable irrationality,” as economist Dan Ariely puts it. Our wallets are tied to our emotions (scientists have found that we tend to consume more when we are sad), our pride (we consume to improve our social status) and our expectations (we enjoy expensive items more than comparable cheap ones). We value getting stuff now much more than we value the future savings that forgoing the shopping trip would yield.

That most of us are blind to our own deficiencies makes matters worse, allowing debt to multiply. Studies show, for example, that many people overestimate their ability to repay a debt quickly. While we consumers labor under delusions of rationality, a fleet of retailers, marketers, and lenders have made it their business to understand human nature quite well. They put that knowledge to use to designing offers and credit products in the precise shape of our blind spots. Thus, credit cards with seemingly modest costs become quite expensive over time (and profitable to the card issuer) through mechanisms such as tiered late fees and penalty pricing. Research by the Center for Responsible Lending describes how these fee structures create an illusion of low and proportional fees – drawing consumer attention to the lowest, but least common fee, while instead allowing for hidden price increases . Payday loans entice with their promise of quick cash for the holidays. Yet many borrowers end up taking out one loan after another for months and even years after taking out the loan . The typical borrower takes out 9 loans per year.

Christians may or may not have initiated the commercialization of Christmas, but we bear a responsibility to help heal its wounds.

The first step may simply be understanding how vulnerable we are to debt. This lends a note of humility to our efforts to refocus on worship over consumerism -- and may even help keep people out of debt.

The mounting psychological evidence of why we consume irrationally should also encourage us to keep businesses from aiding and abetting predictable indebtedness and hold them accountable through common sense rules and oversight and shareholder action against predatory debt practices.

Finally, churches can counsel stewardship before Christmas and also encourage post-holiday reflection. Baptist pastor Sam Brink proposed a list of questions that provide an excellent starting point: “Do I feel comfortable with the amount of money I/we spent over the Christmas holidays?” “Did we have a Christmas spending plan and stick to it?” “What of myself did I give away this Christmas?” “Was my Christmas experience one of good news for me and for those around me?”

Rachel Anderson works with faith communities concerned about predatory lending and debt through the Center for Responsible Lending in Washington, DC.