Holidays and Celebrations

Why Do We Procrastinate Holiday Shopping?

Two psychology professors break down why some people wait until the last minute to buy holiday gifts for their loved ones.

Why Do We Procrastinate Holiday Shopping?
Michael Dwyer / AP

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the town, shoppers scurried to get gifts before the stores shut down.

The prices were hung on the aisles with care, but time was running out — Christmas would soon be here.

What to get? What to buy? The age-old debate. Why do it early, when you can procrastinate? 

Done a week before Christmas? Just a third of the nation, according to numbers from the National Retail Federation. 

Some gift-givers wait to retrieve — 6% of you still shop come Christmas Eve.

So why do we wait and roll the dice? We had all year to see who was naughty and nice. 

Joseph Ferrari is a professor at DePaul University and has written about peoples' punctual adversity. 

"What then, is procrastination? It's the purposeful. So, it's an active avoidance strategy," he said.

Ferrari says procrastination types come in three. "Thrill seekers" wait till the last minute to get a rush of glee, "avoiders" fear their choices will be judged and "indecisives" can’t decide, to stay or to budge. 

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Ferrari says 20% of us are chronic procrastinators. Why do it now, when you can save it for later? He studied the holidays, specifically, and found those who shop late tend to have other procrastination traits. 

Fuschia Sirois teaches psychology at Durham University in the U.K. 

"People procrastinate because of poor mood management. In other words, they procrastinate on tasks that they find aversive or unpleasant," she said.

That's one reason you might get a tardy present. Sirois says holiday procrastinators have a few excuses they can play.

"It can be if you don't want to do it too early, it may be because you're not really sure if you've got the right gift. ... And you may just be someone who doesn't like shopping, you don't like the crowds, you don't like lining up, you know, queuing up, paying for things."

So if you're one of these, you might give your gift late, but it's not just on holiday shopping that you procrastinate. 

"So they're going to delay when it comes to Christmas shopping, but those same people will delay filing their income taxes and delay sending you a birthday card or a gift or RSVP on time," Ferrari said. 

He says we need to reward the early bird — a point on which he's made himself heard. 

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"We ought to reward for being early, not punished for being late," Ferrari continued. "So, why then, do we have 70 to 80% off at the end, at Christmas Eve? Why isn't it 70, 80% at the beginning?"

It's true — if you do your shopping right before your holiday meal, you can sometimes score a last-minute holiday deal. But shelves could be empty and leave you stranded. You don’t want to be the one who shows up empty-handed.

If you wait until the end before you shop, there's no one-fix to make the habit stop. 

Ferrari says don't worry, gift-giving is not a test. Sometimes punctuality is the gift that is best.

"You might not buy the best gift for that person. But the person will understand — first of all, they may be surprised, 'Oh, this year you got me the gift on time." But the thought, you know, if people care for you, they'll always understand that you came from the heart."

Yes, a gift that comes from the heart and one that's not late is the best one to give on the holidays.

So may your shopping be timely, your gift-giving bright, happy holidays to all and to all a good night.