Ah, the holidays. A time to get together, celebrate with family and make questionable life choices. Whether it is drinking way too much egg nog, or bringing up old resentments at the dinner table, something about the holidays switches off the usual filters in our brains.
But new survey data reveals the dumbest choice of all: Many of us are drawing down emergency funds, or even raiding retirement accounts, to pay holiday bills.
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Some 62 percent of parents admit to spending more than they should over the holidays, according to the 2015 Parents, Kids & Money Survey by Baltimore-based money managers T. Rowe Price. To compound the hurt, 9 percent of parents are tapping emergency family cash to do so, and 7 percent are dipping into 401(k)s or IRAs.
Dads are the biggest culprit, with 11 percent admitting they dipped into emergency savings and retirement accounts to make it through the holidays. In comparison, only 6 percent of moms tapped emergency funds, and barely 3 percent made withdrawals from retirement funds.
"People feel like if they don't spend, spend, spend, it means they aren't doing anything," said Stuart Ritter, a senior financial planner with T. Rowe. "That 'all-or-nothing' mindset is used to rationalize buying more than they really should. As a result, a huge percentage of people say they end up overspending."
While every family's financial situation is unique, there are some tips everyone can use to keep out of spending trouble.
Set strict parameters
The typical American household spends around 1 percent of pretax income on holiday shopping, according to Hersh Shefrin, a professor and behavioral economist at Santa Clara University. Low-income families are slightly more than that, at 1.5 percent, and high-income families slightly less, at 0.5 percent.
Stick to those guidelines to make sure your purchases are not spinning out of control. Shefrin suggests starting early to avoid overspending and the stress of last-minute shopping.
"Then throw in something small and meaningful for yourself which you earn at the end of the holiday season, but only if you stick to your budget," he said.
Spending with discipline means fewer family arguments. Half of those who overspent reported having money squabbles, according to the Parents, Kids & Money Survey. Among those who did not overspend, only 27 percent argued.
Remember that the most thoughtful presents usually do not come with a big price tag: Hand-make a photo album, for instance, or put together a genealogy tree.
Another idea: Offer family members a book of certificates they can cash in to do favorite activities together. After all, kids value your time most of all, even if they are too cool to say so.
Form a united front with your partner to keep you both from overspending. After all, the less your spend on holiday gifts, the more you will have to fund other key goals like college savings, family vacations, and retirement accounts.
"Don't think of cutting back as getting less of the things you want; think of it as getting more of the things you want," said Ritter.
You can also use peer pressure to your advantage. Make it public, so you cannot backtrack on your savings goals.
"Tell someone whose respect you crave what you plan to do, and ask them to check in with you at the end to see if you lived within your budget," advised Shefrin. "There's no pressure like peer pressure from people whose respect you crave."