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 new 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 for reducing your money-related stress 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. (If it doesn’t fly, try to find free gifts they’ll actually want.)
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 of 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 by hand-making all of the gifts you’ll be giving.
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 — organize 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, and check your grocery store’s weekly ads to see where you can save money, even cooking for a lot of people. The strategies you used for Thanksgiving dinner apply here, too.
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 last 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.
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 on those items that tend to be cheaper closer to Christmas.
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.
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 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
Above all, remind yourself you’re supposed to be celebrating! Most of the joys of Christmas 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.
Your Turn: What stresses you out most about the holidays? What tricks do you recommend for reducing stress?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).