5 Ways To Lower Your Financial Stress Around The Holidays

Control financial stressMoney doesn’t just burn a hole in your pocket.  It can also burn a hole in your stomach.  How does that work?

Well, worrying about having (or not having) money is one of the major stressors all year round, but deals a double-whammy during the holidays. The increased level of advertising for all those shiny objects combines with memories of better Christmases in the past. The temptation is huge to ignore your present reality and just put everything on a credit card … and worry about it later.

But you know when you’ve done that in the past, the stress in January is even worse as you open (or don’t open and just think about) your credit card statements.

How does stress affect your body? It represents the ultimate mind-body connection. Any kind of stress starts as a reaction to perceived danger … and what greater danger is there than not having enough money to protect, nourish, and care for yourself and/or your loved ones? So the brain throws you into the automatic “fight or flight” mode that our cave woman ancestors needed in order to survive.

Out gush the cortisone and adrenaline to your rescue, on strict instructions from your brain. When these two course through your body, they instruct your heart rate and your blood pressure to rise in order to meet the impending danger. You’re now ready to either flee the danger … or stand to fight it. But how do you flee or fight financial stress? Instead, the body takes a blow wherever it is weakest … including the stomach lining where ongoing stress can lead to ulcers. Or it attacks someplace else. You’ve heard the expression “worry yourself sick,” haven’t you?

But what if you could avoid this entire scenario? Despite the temptations of holiday spending, you can take actions that will keep your financial situation from getting worse … and lessen the grip that stress has on your everyday life … without sacrificing what’s most dear about the holidays.

1. Put Together a Spending Plan That You Can Stick To

In earlier posts, I’ve talked about figuring out where your inflow and outflow of money are in balance. Look back and see if you have any surplus cash each month, or look to see what else you can cut this month to free up some cash for the holidays.

Once you’ve identified that, make that your holiday spending plan and stick to it. Unlike the U.S. Government, you can’t print money. So you really do have to cover each extra expenditure with a cut-back somewhere else.

If you find it impossible not to pull out that credit card when you go shopping, leave all your cards at home and take just cash … in the amount you’ve set aside for discretionary holiday spending. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The tough part is having the discipline at that point to go home. These are the moments that separate “the women from the girls” …

2. Get Help from Friends and Family

I’m not talking about asking for loans. I’m talking about asking for support.

Talking helps. But if you’re uncomfortable talking to anyone who knows you, consider joining a support group. Some specialize in issues, like shopping addictions, while others deal more generally in financial distress. Whoever it is, just talking to people who have been in a similar predicament and have gotten out will lessen the burden as you get out of your own.

Where I think your friends and family could make the greatest difference is if they agreed among themselves and with you to redefine what makes up the year-end holidays: it’s not about the gifts and it’s not about how much someone spends on lavish entertaining. But it is about showing others you care … spending time together … sharing old memories and making new ones.

Family enjoying sunrise Invent a new way to celebrate. Make it reflect who you and your loved ones truly are. Maybe you get up early on Christmas Day and drive to a vantage point where you can see a sunrise. Pack up a thermos of hot chocolate for each person if need be. Or be of service: volunteer to help serve a holiday meal at a shelter. And, who knows, it may become a new family tradition. Whatever you do, break the old patterns where a massive pile of unneeded (and often unwanted) gifts are piled up under the tree.

3. Banish Your Credit Cards

If nothing stops you from pulling out a credit card when your “want” buttons are pushed, cut up your cards (but don’t cancel them). If that seems extreme, give them to a friend or family member who doesn’t live with you. Ask them to hold the cards until after January 1st … and make them promise to ignore all your pleadings.

I know, I know, you probably have the number memorized and can shop online without the card itself. But we have to want to get out from under the financial stress, and that requires some grown-up behavior!

Just knowing you’re sticking to your spending plan will lower your stress. Maybe the feeling is good enough to continue that behavior after the holidays. Hopefully it will trigger starting to pay down your debt as fast as you can, not paying off just the monthly minimums. You already know that having that massive load of accumulated credit card debt weighs heavily on your mind … and on your body each time you think about it.

But do think about how good you’ll feel if you get through the holidays without adding to it.

4. Change How You Look at Money

Positive thinking won’t lower the dollar value on the bills you have to pay. But it will lower the stress around the fact that you have to pay them, just by breaking the worry-stress-worry-stress cycle. And the less stress you’re carrying, the more creative you can be about finding solutions that will change your reality to something better.

Marvel at poinsettia detailsWhat forms of positive thinking? Laugh. Look around you and count your blessings. Marvel at how that poinsettia by your front door knew how to grow as it did. Feel the warmth coming out of your radiator. Think about your cat’s purr or your dog’s cold nose when he comes in each morning to wake you.

Recognize that money isn’t everything in your life by appreciating what you do have, instead of focusing solely on what you don’t. Remember that we live in a blessed country where people who are struggling are far better off than those who aren’t struggling in others. And where many of us are waking up to the fact that we want to get out from under all our “stuff.”

[I know I sound like Pollyanna. But changing your mindset works!]

If you’re a constant worrier, you can’t just flip a switch and—voilà!—your worries are gone. But if your worries center on things you cannot control (as in “what if the economy gets even worse and I’m laid off”), just separate ‘what you can’ from ‘what you cannot’ control. Let go of what you cannot change and you’ll release tons of frustration. Instead, focus on those things you can.

5. Recognize the Difference Between a Need and a Want

When we were kids, we wanted new Keds for Christmas. Today we want Jimmy Choos. We wanted the new Dale Evans doll in her Jeep. Today we want a Lexus in the driveway.

Our wants have grown exponentially and the lines between wants and needs have blurred. As a society, we have drifted so far from our real needs, mostly by using money we didn’t have in order to get there. (And then the entire country’s economy hit a brick wall.)

When it comes to the holidays, it’s obviously harder to cut back when you have children around, but it doesn’t hurt for them to learn a lesson or two about money. (It sure would have helped if we had learned some at their age…)

Take a moment before going shopping for any gifts you’ve budgeted for on your holiday spending plan. You have the choice of filling a momentary “want” for that recipient, or you could fulfill a more long-lasting “need.” After the wrapping paper is torn off and thrown away, which do you think will leave a more lasting memory of being loved and cared for?

As the holidays approach and carols fill the airwaves, we all have a knee-jerk reaction to make this a magical time. But that magic comes with a high price tag. By planning in advance and being creative, I challenge you to find innovative ways to create that same magic … but in ways that don’t leave you more stressed when the mailman delivers those credit card bills in January.

Let me know what ideas you’ve come up with to create that magic, and post them on my Facebook wall so we can all benefit!

  • Hi Sharon,

    These are some great tips! Christmas isn’t about the presents underneath the tree. And you’re right, oftentimes they’re unwanted and not needed anyway. The holidays are about family.

    Why not make memories instead. We usually don’t remember what we got for Christmas, but we will remember that sleigh ride with our loved ones,or that get-together with old friends or that cup of hot chocolate we had in the mountain cabin, the laughter, the warmth, the walk in fresh snow, etc.

    Happy holidays!

    Ilka

  • Ilka, when I saw videos of people literally trampling one another on Black Friday, just to grab something in a store that will be cast aside once the shine is off it … it broke my heart. If my ups and downs have taught me anything, it’s that the joy is in the simple things. All those things you listed in your comment … Warmest wishes for your holidays too! Sharon

  • Right on Sharon!

    No one I know (or care to keep in my life) will judge a relationship by the price of a Christmas gift. If anything, I find its the other way around — a thoughtless, meaningless gift from a store says so little that most people I know would rather receive NOTHING at all.
    My family has a new tradition of making a Christmas donation to charity rather than to the Target Super Center… and I couldn’t be happier.
    In this day and age of instant gratification, what could any of us possibly “need” for Christmas except a little honest connection with people: the undivided attention of a friend, the warmth of a hand to hold, or an encouraging word of gratitude.
    Warm regards for the cold holidays!
    David

    • David, my one hope for the national economic crisis was that people would revisit their priorities. It may not have triggered a mass change, but more people than we realize have done exactly what your family has done. Here’s hoping it’s contagious! An early Merry Christmas to you and yours!