To Buy Or Not to Buy....

It's coming.....the all American holiday we've all been waiting for all year. No, I don't mean Thanksgiving. I mean "Black Friday," the national consumer-fest that officially begins the midnight after Turkey day, when our thoughts turn from gratitude for the priceless and immaterial, to our desire for all the material things that money can buy.

A little history: "The term Black Friday itself was originally used to describe something else entirely — the Sept. 24, 1864, stock-market panic set off by plunging gold prices. Newspapers in Philadelphia reappropriated the phrase in the late 1960s, using it to describe the rush of crowds at stores. The justification came later, tied to accounting balance sheets where black ink would represent a profit. Many see Black Friday as the day retailers go into the black or show a profit for the first time in a given year. The term stuck and spread, and by the 1990s Black Friday became an unofficial retail holiday nationwide. Since 2002, Black Friday has been the season's biggest shopping day each year except 2004, according to market-research firm ShopperTrak."- A Brief History of Black Friday, Tom Fletcher, Time Business 11/27/2009

For the last 3 years we have lived in economic circumstances that I never imagined. My parents, on the other hand,  imagined them all too well. They had lived through a lot worse.  Like many other baby boomers, I  was inculcated with their attitude that the bottom could drop out at any minute, and money was meant to be put away for a rainy day.   So I still have a hard time getting used to the message coming my way that tells me the future depends on my spending money, not saving it, in order to get our economy going.

Everybody also know there is a deep connection between mood and money. As Charles Dickens said, "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." We use the same word, "depression,"  to describe a downturn in one's state of mind and a downturn in the economy. When the economy is depressed, people jump out of windows. When people are depressed, they stay inside and don't look out the window. On the other hand, when the money flows, we're more apt to open the window, breath deeply, and  contemplate the appealing features of the world around us, including those features we would like to purchase.

Then again, it's true that money can't buy happiness. But it's also true that it helps.
It's not just what money is, it's what money symbolizes- the web of unconscious associations that link every pound, dollar and euro we spend or save to our own personal emotional histories, and the emotional currency that passed between our parents and ourselves. Which makes it highly unlikely that our attitudes toward money will be rational. Why do I fret about a relatively minor purchase, then go out and spend three times as much on dinner?

I know all too well, from observing my own behavior,  that the tipping point between keeping my credit card in my pocket or taking it out and pulling the trigger is governed by mysterious forces that have yet to be elucidated, the undiscovered frontier between mind and money that we call Behavioral Economics. And if the past is any predictor of the future, I am most unlikely to find myself at a big box store at midnight, fullfilling my patriotic duty to stimulate the economy. But I do look forward to the immaterial and priceless gifts that Thanksgiving brings, and I wish the very same for you.

By the way- If you would like to hear more about the intersection of economics and psychoanalyis, the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society will be presenting Dr. Leslie Shaw speaking on "A Psychoanalytic Voice for the Behavioral Economics Revolution" on 11/22/11- just in time for Black Friday.

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