It's not everyone's favorite shopping holiday: the dark side of Black Friday

Black Friday shoppersBlack Friday may be the start of the shopping season, but for some people, it's a painful reminder of what they don't have. For those people, it's almost become an anti-holiday.

"On Friday, I'm planning on tackling a number of things off my honey-do list," says Robert Zonis, a product development chemist in Shelbyville, Tenn. who recently learned that his job will be terminated at the end of the year. "At least that's the plan. I know I'm deliberately staying away from television, radio, newspapers and leaving the house in general."

It wasn't going to be that way. "I had great plans and several lists for multiple stores," says Zonis. "Now I'm looking at having to survive on an unemployment check come January. Black Friday is just another day, and every ad on the radio, TV and even in my email just reminds me again that I can't give my family the big holiday season we'd planned -- it's horribly depressing. I'd say my holiday budget has been cut by 90 percent."

With the unemployment rate current at 10.2%, foreclosures gone amok, and bankruptcies poised to possibly reach 1.4 million this year, I'm guessing Zonis is far from the only one who sees Black Friday as well, rather, black. As in bleak, dark and anything but a holiday.

This isn't exactly news, of course. CNN isn't likely to run a giant banner, "Breaking news: people with limited funds are shopping less." But if you're unemployed or between paychecks, with just enough money to pay a few of the bills on your long list, and unable to go to a store to seize the door-busting deals, it's important to remember that you aren't alone. Far from it.

Mike McCarty of Denver, Colo, lost his job in September 2008, just as the recession truly took off. He'd worked in software quality assurance, and for years, he and his wife traveled to see family in Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving holiday. Every Black Friday, he would wake up at 4 a.m. "to take a few hardy family members to early morning sales."

But this year, after being unemployed for a year, McCarty won't be traveling to see family and won't be participating in Black Friday. "After having this tradition for years, it's disappointing to not be able to participate," says McCarty. "I'm avoiding the ads." It hasn't been easy, he adds, "because I'm sure there are really good deals this year."

Agreed; it isn't easy. I know this myself because -- well, I'm a writer, and we writers are famous for being perennially broke, and I've spent many a Black Friday either staring at the ads and knowing I couldn't go, or going anyway but wishing I had deeper pockets.

Of course, you may attend the Black Friday sales precisely because you're hurting for more income. That's why Debbie Bennett of Fishers, Ind., says she'll be among the crowd. "It's precisely because we're cash strapped that I'll head out early Friday a.m. to grab a few key items for my young children."

Bennett is working--in fact, she says she's a "marketing coordinator for a high net worth wealth advisory firm," before adding, "ah, the irony"--but her husband, an unemployed builder, is not. She admits that they've fallen about a month behind on their mortgage and car payments, but with two children -- 17 months and 5 years old -- they understandably don't want their kids to wake up Christmas morning to find that Santa Claus skipped their house. So for Bennett, Black Friday's sales will be something of a lifeline but not exactly what one might call a shopping holiday.

"I usually ignore the hype, anyway, but this year, even more so than before, I'll consider my trek simply strategic shopping when I head out," says Bennett, who adds that her husband isn't eligible for unemployment or any other kind of assistance. "Also, to compensate for a lack of 'real' cash, my husband strategically pays our bills with our bank card that offers rewards points. We've received about eight or nine $25 Target gift cards by cashing in our points in advance of Thanksgiving to help with shopping."

But for those who simply can't go and are feeling lousy about not being invited to America's biggest shopping extravaganza, here are a few tips you might want to consider.

For centuries, we got along just fine without Black Friday. Black Friday is a relatively new phrase and a phenomenon created by the retail industry, the media and the public (we wouldn't cover this if only one or two people showed up at stores the day after Thanksgiving). The phrase was apparently coined in the 1960s in Philadelphia. Folklorist Bonnie Taylor-Blake, according to Wikipedia (and based on the newspaper archives I've searched, her research seems accurate), determined that the police officers and bus drivers referred to the day as "Black Friday" due to the crowds of shoppers that descended upon downtown the day after Thanksgiving.

Anyway, the term started appearing frequently in newspapers by the 1970s, and by the 1980s, another theory on the origins of Black Friday -- one you hear a lot today -- started getting passed around. Black Friday was the traditional day that most retailers found themselves in the black and no longer in the red (in debt).

But the point is, the concept of it as this mega-shopping event is fairly new. I mean, Black Friday isn't something our ancestors were partaking in. Try going back 20 years to Google News, type in "Black Friday" and "Thanksgiving," and you'll find just 122 articles published in November 1989 mentioning the words. There were 399 published the month of November 1999. As best as I can tell, so far, for November 2009, we're at approximately 2,630 articles that mention Black Friday and Thanksgiving. In other words, it's impossible to avoid the words Black Friday, and perfectly understandable if you want to be a part of it.

But if you know you can't, and are bothered by the fact that you can't, close your eyes, breathe deeply and pretend it's 1955, or even 1985.

Think about the money you're saving. Sure, the point of Black Friday is that there are a ton of sales, and while you're spending money, you're also saving money. But if you used to pay for Christmas with credit cards and now can't, or simply realize it isn't worth it, well, you're not going and being responsible, and you should feel great about not taking on more debt. Now, if you're tempted to just go for broke (literally) and buy whatever your credit card can take, just remember: It's a deal if you get $300 off a plasma TV, and you know you can pay off the entire TV in a month or maybe two, but if you save $300 only to spend $500 in interest over the next two years...well, you do the math.

Be good to yourself. Whatever you do, don't torture yourself on Black Friday by looking at all the ads and watching the news.
If you're unemployed or simply tapped out, you might want to hang out with someone in a similar situation the day after Thanksgiving. As McCarty observes, "I've found, for the most part, there's no understanding of unemployment unless one has been there themselves."

And Zonis suggests: "Plan a day in. Sleep late. If you're not a world-class couch potato like I am, the best two counters to depression I know of are either exercise or spending time with family or friends." Zonis adds that if you're more sedentary, "maybe read a trashy book, watch a movie marathon or load up on carbs. Black Friday is not a good day to stress out over diets, exercise or anything else you think you should be doing."

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the upcoming book, Living Well with Bad Credit.
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