8 Ways to Keep Money-Related Stress From Ruining Your Holidays

Labrador puppy looking up tangled up in Chirstmas lights.
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When you think of the holidays, what comes to mind?

You’ll probably recall memories of family, heartwarming food, twinkling lights, shiny presents and… panic-inducing stress.

The last one doesn’t usually appear in the photo album, but you know how real it is. Throw a tight budget, frantic travel plans and loads of people you only talk to once a year all in one pot, and you’ve got a recipe for serious anxiety.

More than 60% of people say their stress level increases over the holidays, according to Healthline.

The biggest culprit? Money. More than half of people are stressed about money during the holidays, according to a 2016 survey from Experian. In the same survey, 56% of people said they spend too much during the holidays.

We understand — this time of year comes with a lot of added expenses.

Here are some tips to reduce holiday stress caused by financial woes as Christmas draws near:

1. Organize a Secret Santa

Skip the stress of figuring out what to buy everyone in your extended family and how you’ll possibly afford it. Instead, organize a gift exchange.

Set up rules and pick a comfortable price range for everyone. For example, on one side of my family, we do a Secret Santa exchange among the adults for $50 gift cards. On the other side, everyone brings one gift worth about $25 for a white elephant exchange.

These systems allow us to have a little something under the tree at Christmas and to give something to other family members — without spending a fortune!

The guidelines eliminate the stress and politics among family members with different budgets and priorities.

2. Give up the Gift Exchange

The holidays are a wonderful time to see and appreciate all the people you love.

But once you start running the numbers, you might wish you didn’t love quite so many people.

Outside of your kids, nieces, nephews, parents, spouse, cousins, aunts and uncles… you also have circles of friends, co-workers, clients, the mail carrier, your doorman, the kids’ teachers…

Your shopping list can get overwhelming pretty quickly.

Guess what? So is everyone else’s.

Don’t be afraid to be the one in the office to suggest a “no-presents” policy, or suggest a dinner with friends instead of a gift exchange.

Friends and co-workers are probably just as stressed as you, wondering where to find the money for all these gifts. Most will probably thank you for bringing it up.

When everyone is on the same page, you can skip the expense of extra presents without the stress of feeling like a jerk.

3. Or Just Make All Your Gifts

Instead of pressuring a group to spend money on gifts, only exchange handmade items.

This can be a fun way for everyone to contribute their unique talents to the group. Your resident baker can bring treats for everyone, the painter can make personalized paintings, the writer can write everyone a poem, etc.

Even if you don’t have an agreement with everyone, you can still save money with this extensive list of gift ideas that won’t break your bank.

As long as you can create something the people on your list will actually want, your gift could come with real value and be one of a kind.

4. Organize a Potluck

Do you usually make the holiday meal for everyone?

Relieve the pressure and save yourself tons of money by organizing a potluck.

To reduce stress and cost, don’t just ask everyone to bring “whatever.” Make sure all the major dishes and/or courses are assigned. Otherwise, you’ll end up cooking too much to make sure the basics are there.

Get invites and information out early to make time to adjust assignments for everyone’s interests and availability.

If everyone attending your party has an account, a Facebook event can help you coordinate without a string of emails where information is easily lost.

Watch your budget on whatever you make for dinner, too. Plan ahead by checking your grocery store’s weekly ads to see where you can save money, then follow our tips for how to save on groceries to make sure you get the most out of your holiday food shopping.

5. Save Money on Kids’ Gifts

For kids, half the Christmas fun is having a bunch of boxes under the tree to unwrap. But piling presents under the tree can get pricy!

Fill in some of the extras with low-cost items the kids will still love.

If you shop for the adults on your list at the dollar store or thrift shop, you’d probably wind up gifting a bunch of junk nobody can use. Kids’ toys, however, can come cheap without losing their usefulness.

The toddlers in my family are among my favorite to buy gifts for — their tastes are pretty simple.

Thrift stores are great for fun dress-up clothes for kids. I had an amazing old prom dress when I was young! I also found small items like plastic jewelry and play makeup at Dollar General one year that my niece still loves.

Be selective with where you cut costs on kids’ gifts, though. If they’re asking specifically for a set of Shopkins toys, don’t stick a cheap knockoff under the tree. It’s not the same, and they’ll tell you!

Generic toys like dress-up clothes, balls and coloring books, however, don’t have to be Frozen-branded to be fun.

6. Create a Shopping List and Plan Ahead

Some of the greatest financial stress around the holidays comes from unexpected expenses, says Experian. Curb this by planning ahead.

We’ve created a simple holiday budgeting worksheet to help you keep track of your holiday shopping lists and expenses.

In addition to your gift budget, look ahead to increased day-to-day expenses in the weeks surrounding Christmas.

Will you spend more on gas for added trips to the mall, grocery store and events? Do you want to buy a new dress for holiday parties? Will you buy stamps to send out Christmas cards?

These hidden, small expenses can quietly eat away at your wallet if you’re not paying attention. Look ahead, and figure out how you can stretch your money for more than just presents.

7. Avoid Last-Minute Shopping

Yes, well-planned late-season shopping can help you save money, as you’ll often find better deals closer to Christmas than on big shopping days like Black Friday.

But last-minute shopping because you didn’t plan ahead is just an expensive (and avoidable) ball of stress you don’t need.

Once you’ve created your list (see above), stagger your shopping over the next week or so to avoid draining your bank account in one blow.

Starting now will also help you avoid two major stressors: out-of-stock items and exorbitant rush shipping rates, if you’re shopping online.

8. Reduce Travel Stress

Regardless of the time of year, traveling is stressful for a lot of people — especially if you don’t do it often.

Add a car full of kids, family awaiting your arrival and the potential snowstorm, and the holidays really turn it up a notch.

If you’re still waiting to book your holiday flights, prices are likely getting higher by the day.

If you have no choice but to wait to book your holiday flights, check out the Christmas and New Year’s calendar from CheapAir.com to book on the best day.

When I’m traveling — flying or driving — one of the biggest stressors is finding food. You seem to have to choose among going hungry, eating terrible food or spending a ton of money.

Unless you plan ahead!

You may not be able to take beverages through security at the airport, but you can pack your own food. Throw in a few packets of powdered flavoring to add to your water bottle, and you’ll save money on soda.

If you’re driving, make coffee and breakfast at home. Pack snacks to avoid spending money at the convenience store.

‘Tis the Season for Cheer, Not Holiday Stress

Above all, remind yourself you’re supposed to be celebrating! Most of the joys of the holidays are totally free.

Prioritize time with friends and family. Enjoy the little things like a fresh snowfall and ice skating. Take in the lights and the parades.

If it’s stressing you out, it’s probably not worth your time — or money.

Dana Sitar ([email protected]) is a senior writer/newsletter editor at The Penny Hoarder. Say hi and tell her a good joke on Twitter @danasitar.


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