An image of a woman holding as stack of holiday gifts.

4 Ways to Tackle Holiday Money Stress

By Steve Calechman
December 15, 2021

The holiday season might not be the same as before, but it’s getting closer to what it once was. But this return to an almost normal holiday season also means a return to the usual holiday stressors. Even before the pandemic, back in 2018, when the U.S. economy was expanding, 60 percent of Americans ages 21 to 62 reported feeling financially anxious, according to a recent industry report.

For those who have been stressed out about the state of their bank balance all year, the holidays present a challenge, as we're forced to make hard choices around gift giving. “There’s guilt and the anxiety of not being able to say no,” says Robin Norris, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Virginia.

Paring down our gift list or scaling back on extravagant purchases means disappointing people, or at least it feels that way. So instead, we spend more than we have and decide to deal with the ramifications when bills come in January.

How to Cut Back on Financial Stress This Holiday Season

While worrying about money might feel like a quintessential part of the season, you can take a proactive approach to dealing with holiday stress.

1. Give It Some Thought

Our family and friends have different desires and interests. Taking time to thoughtfully consider what each person likes and might respond to—rather than mindlessly attaching some dollar amount and "level" of gift to give—can result in a more satisfying gifting experience for everyone involved. Some on your list, like small children, may prefer an actual present, but others might love something handmade, a card with a personalized message, time with you, or having some chores done for them.

With that forethought, Norris says, you can divide people into categories, prioritizing who gets what. And then, the process becomes less about merely buying things and more about giving something that has meaning.

2. Make a List

No, really—make a list. Just like with food shopping, having a tangible list prevents impulse buying, not only for others but for yourself. One easy trap to fall into is feeling bad when you’re buying for others, and then to make yourself feel better, buying things for yourself, explains Alex Melkumian, Psy.D., a financial therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center, in Los Angeles.

Making a list, sticking to it, and keeping yourself off it can help you maintain financial focus. When you decide what people might like and then make a list, the focus shifts to checking things off. It’s clear and directed, and the other upshot is you can get a sense of satisfaction from staying on task and ultimately getting it done.

3. Know Your Why

When you feel yourself starting to get caught up in what you should do for others and the stress sets in, it helps to take a step back and reconnect to the moment. Mindfulness practices like deep breathing exercises and meditation—even if only done for a few minutes—can help.

Once you check in with your body, ask yourself: “Why is this so important? Am I trying to impress people? Do I think they’ll be disappointed if I don’t buy a specific gift?” Understanding the why that’s causing your stress spiral is the first step to pulling yourself out of it.

"Chances are, the people who care about you aren’t that shallow," says Melkumian, who adds that even people with well-planned budgets can be tempted to go overboard sometimes. Always reaching for the next thing, and with that, not being content, is a widely shared mentality. Remembering that can relieve some of the pressure and help you get out of the struggle.

4. Live with the Discomfort

Here’s another thing to realize: No one wants to disappoint people. It feels horrible, but reframing and moving from the negative attitude can help alleviate the feeling.

Norris suggests amending your thinking from “I can’t spend this” to something more positive, like “I can’t spend this because I want to use the money for something else” or “I can’t spend $100 on this, but I can spend $50.” The key is having a good reason. “Reminding yourself of a bigger purpose makes it easier to stick within your limits,” Norris says.

When you let go of the idea that you have to give the greatest gifts to be accepted or loved, and instead, start calling the shots when it comes to your own money, you'll feel more confident. “It gives you the power of control,” Melkumian says.

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