Have you started Christmas shopping yet?

I have and know too well that human brains are not designed to cope with the psychological complexities of Christmas.

Psychologists have been studying the relationship between Christmas, psychology, shopping and money for decades. As Canterbury University associate professor Ekant Veer points out, readers could learn a lot from those studies and have a happier, more fulfilling festive season.

Too many of us use money earmarked for more important purposes to impress our friends, whānau, and others with Christmas gifts and entertaining we can't afford.

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At the very least our Christmas budgets could be used to better purpose.

When it comes to gifts, Kiwi kids grow up believing if they are good they will get great gifts at Christmas, says Veer.

The reality is receiving better gifts has more to do with being rich not being good.
"There are some rich kids that are absolute s***s and they will still get fantastic presents anyway," he says.

Here are my top survival tips:

Watch out for that scent

I'm a sucker for the smells and sounds of Christmas and Sylvia Park smelled downright festive last weekend. An experiment at Washington University found when Christmas scents and music were used in a retail setting shoppers were more likely to buy.

"The scents of pine, cinnamon and mulled cider join with the sounds of carollers, traditional hymns and pop holiday tunes to create the Christmas holiday season in the minds of many," the researchers concluded.

Be environmentally conscious

A few weeks back I called the Ministry for the Environment to check a fact. The conversation veered off to Christmas and it turned out my contact is making home-made reusable shopping bags from T-shirts as Christmas gifts — and loving every moment of the process.

Researchers at Missouri University found individuals who engaged in more environmentally friendly consumption behaviours over Christmas were more satisfied.

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I know I can feel a little deflated at the end of Christmas shopping trips when I think about the quantity of plastic, wrapping and other environmentally detrimental things that have made their way into my home.

Even the lovely cardboard-wrapped EcoStore toiletries sets still had plastic bottles. If you'd given small eco-friendly gifts in the 1980s your friends probably would have laughed at you, says Veer. Nowadays they'll be impressed.

Givers and receivers think differently

Money really doesn't buy love, according to Francis Flynn and Gabrielle Adams at Stanford University. They found expensive gifts didn't convey a higher level of thoughtfulness.

A gift tailored to an individual will often be appreciated more than an expensive generic gift or one you give because it's something you'd like to receive. This is so true for me. I read this on the same day as being asked to bring "cheeses" to an event. Instead of thinking I needed to buy a certain number in order not to look cheap, I bought two. It didn't matter. I received compliments for the home made crackers.

Give the gift of a goat

Veer's 10-year-old daughter asked friends to bring gifts for the SPCA on her birthday. People who have all they want may prefer an experience or a charitable gift such as this.

Veer's university colleagues researched the concept of a "goat for Christmas", where the gifter buys a goat, seeds, water pump, or other useful item to be gifted to a person in the developing world on the receiver's behalf.

Gifters much prefer to give something tangible such as a goat, rather than a donation that disappears into administration, says professor Simon Kemp.

Kemp and his colleagues were surprised at how much Kiwis enjoyed "receiving" this type of gift.

Keeping Christmas under control does mean fighting a battle against the many tricks used by Santa in the marketing department.

Google the words: "psychology of Christmas".

The more you read, the greater chance you have of avoiding psychologically/economically unsatisfying spending.

Find out about heuristics and how we take mental shortcuts when shopping. And write lists of everything you need to buy as far in advance as you can. You can also see my previous Christmas-related articles at tinyurl.com/dianaclementchristmas

Make sure everyone in the family understands the budget and what Christmas poverty means.

It's not worth going into debt for a few days of celebrations, says Veer. Look for other ways to celebrate, which are often more fulfilling than worshipping at the altar of shopping.