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Samantha Bennett at Paris Pas Cher in Montreal.

Shopping for family at Christmas, Samantha Bennett suffers an internal collapse that invariably ends with gifts – for her.

"At first, my natural generosity takes the stage and I get pleasure out of finding something I think a beloved will like," the Montreal freelance writer said. Quickly though, it's replaced by creeping resentment as she grits her teeth and begins to suffer from mall fever: "that slack-jawed, dull-eyed shuffle of the kill-me-now."

Jewellery is her weakness. "I cannot buy it for anyone else without buying something for myself," said Bennett, who tried putting on "virtual blinkers" as she picked out pearl earrings for her mother this year. It didn't work, and she walked out with two rings for herself.

When Bennett's self-gifting urge takes hold, it manifests as a boxing match in her head. In one corner: "Grow up, you large baby. Every year, you put yourself through this and for what? The guilt, the recriminations eating away at your tender innards." In the other, a kinder voice that quotes her former therapist: "Guilt is nonsense. If you buy the ticket, see the show."

Self-gifting is a furtive Christmas ritual, and more of us are sneaking around than ever. The practice has grown 27 per cent in the past five years, with consumers now spending 20 per cent of their total Christmas allotment on themselves, according to the U.S. National Retail Federation, which surveyed nearly 9,000 Americans this fall (no such numbers were available for Canada). On average, self-gifters estimated that they would drop $237 on themselves this season, proof that Christmas is finally as unabashed a consumerist feeding frenzy as Boxing Day and Black Friday.

Some self-gifters feel entitled: Having diligently shopped for everyone on their list, they feel compelled to treat themselves. Others lose sight of the intended target, infected with mall fever – crowds, weighty bags, dehydration, overheated stores and that fine, recirculated mall air. Others actually view self-gifting as fiscal foresight: Thanks to deep discounts postrecession, you've saved money on them – so spend a little on yourself.

Trista Picken was Christmas shopping for her fiancé on eBay, hunting for a "rarity." "I found it alright: a gorgeous, Prada crystal-studded ball gown for New Year's," said the 26-year-old from Ottawa, who eventually got her partner a laptop from Best Buy.

The self-gifting urge hit again two weeks ago while Picken was shopping online for 10 people on her list. She ended up with a handbag, jacket, makeup and three T-shirts for herself, alongside the gifts. As she hit "confirm" on her purchases, Picken felt a misgiving but quickly talked herself out of it, arguing that she simply knows how to spot deals online: "I'm not the Grinch, I don't think."

"It's not just about greed, some of it is just opportunistic spending," said Golden Gate University consumer research psychologist Kit Yarrow, pointing to dramatic sales every Christmas, a relatively new phenomenon that took hold after the economic downturn.

But Canadians are also treating themselves full-price, often as a conscious celebration of the year's successes.

Dennis Lam has gifted himself every Christmas since 2004, the year he landed an engineering job straight out of university. "I feel I've made it through the year and deserve a little something," the 31-year-old said from Edmonton. This year, Lam bought Lam a MacBook Air ($1,600). Last year, he did Team Canada World Junior Hockey Championship tickets. In 2010, it was a $1,500 Shiba Inu puppy.

"You work hard every year, set goals and do things to make yourself a better person. You need to reward yourself," said Sameen Butt, a postgraduate student in corporate communications at Seneca College from Mississauga. This year, Butt, 25, treated herself to an expensive Omega watch for "working really hard" to get her straight As.

But she has also been guilty of the spontaneous self-gift, such as last week, when she scoured an H&M store for a sweater for her dad but ended up with clothing for herself. (The perfect sweater was ferreted out later at Old Navy.)

Despite all the self-splurging, research suggests that Canadian consumers are actually increasingly "thoughtful and prudent," said Doug Stephens, Toronto author of The Retail Revival: Reimagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism, out in February. In an era of endless gift choices, Stephens said, families are ditching the formal exchanges in favour of the mindset that "perhaps each of us is the best gifter for ourselves." (Cue the cash and gift cards.)

"It's underpinned by economic sobriety: We just don't have money any more to blow," said Stephens, president of Retail Prophet, which consults with organizations and retailers about consumer behaviour.

On the other hand, Yarrow argues that her grandmother's far more frugal generation was never as easily sidetracked. "They had much more stringent rules around humility, gratitude and giving. We live in an all-about-me society. … We've got marketers and retailers feeding people lines like, 'You deserve it.' It's more socially acceptable to be thinking about yourself at a time when, really, the gift season is supposed to be about others."

Bennett sees it a different way. "I don't think I could bear seeing something I loved on a friend or family member, knowing I had bought it for them but wanted it for myself. The resentment would be corrosive. I self-gift to avoid having nasty little thoughts about people I love."

Anatomy of a shopping spree

Entering the mall armed with the List this Christmas, we're resolved to blast past the meanderers, our targets firmly in mind. How do end up loaded with bags of discounted duds for no one in particular, broken and thirsty for a stiff drink? Experts dissect the mechanics of the shopping spree.

The first cut

"When you open your wallet, it's like the floodgates open. The first spend is the hardest – every spend after that is easier," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer research psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Cold, hard cash

Yarrow says the further we stray from tangible aspects of money, the more likely we are to spend. "Credit cards are worse than cash. Worse is paying with your phone, and even worse is paying with a gift card. And even worse is paying with a return where you get a store credit. These things are all really commonly used during the holidays. They all degrade the real value of money."

The physiology of shopping

"We're overloaded with stimulation: It's crowded, we're carrying bags, it's hot, sometimes we're thirsty," Yarrow said "When we're stressed out by crowds, physical constraints, competition and fear of missing out, we think just a little bit less clearly."

The impulse gift

"Consumers get overwhelmed with the endorphin rush and they can't help themselves," Doug Stephens, author of the forthcoming book, The Retail Revival: Reimagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism. "Good retailers understand how to turn those screws."

It doesn't go

People who splurged on high-end design items reported more spending sprees afterward; They kept shopping because nothing else they owned felt up to snuff next to the luxury purchase, according to a 2010 study from marketing professors at Boston College and the University of Houston. Respondents kept shopping to "restore aesthetic harmony." The researchers dubbed this phenomenon "aesthetic incongruity resolution."

Online demons

"It's psychologically easier to spend money online," Stephens said. "You're not going through the visceral feeling of handing someone your credit card or putting your debit card in that machine, entering the numbers. Once your credit card and shipping information are entered into Amazon, all you're saying is 'add to cart' and then 'confirm.' That's a totally different psychological thing than having to physically go to a store and go through the guilty process."

An antidote?

"It'd be really nice if we could put a little meter in our heads," Yarrow posits somewhat jokingly. While we shop, the meter would remind us how much we actually earn per hour. "We would really understand what it takes, work-wise, to pay for some of the things we buy. People would spend a lot less money. I don't think we could tolerate it – that's why we won't do it."

Editor's note: Trista Picken is not a lawyer in Ottawa. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article. This online version has been corrected.

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