As we approach the busy holiday season, are you worried about it wreaking havoc on your finances? Each year about October or so, my dad likes to scare everyone by saying something like “only FIVE more paychecks ‘til Christmas.” This makes people nervous, because they haven’t started shopping and don’t see where they’ll find the money to do so.
But the reality is, the holiday season comes at the same time every year – and brings with it a lot of stress. During the holiday season, we find ourselves short on time and long on things to do. We spend more, save less, and forget about budget tracking all together. But with some careful planning, a few deep breaths, and maybe just a little bit of luck, you can get through the holiday season (relatively) stress-free.
Holiday Financial Pitfalls
It’s easy to get caught up in overspending during the holidays. Maybe the holiday spirit gets to you, and you become generous to the point of breaking your budget. Maybe you simply have a lot of people on your gift list. If you’re involved in a lot of community groups, or your children are on lots of teams, you can have endless parties that require a contribution of food, gifts, or both.
Adults-only parties might mean shelling out money for a baby sitter and maybe a hostess gift. The end of the year is also a popular time for charities to solicit donations. Extra running round means more gas money. Finally, the stress of your increasingly-busy schedule can lead to paying for convenience in the form of meals out, professional gift wrapping, or housecleaning services. And all of it together means you just don’t have time to manage your budget and make sure all is going as planned.
How to Avoid Holiday Stress
The seven tips below will help you get through the holiday season without negating all the financial progress you’ve made in 2009. Ultimately though, they all come down to the same thing – treat your holiday purchasing and spending just the way you treat the rest of your financial life.
- Make a list and check it twice: Before the busy season really gets going, sit down and make a list. Write up all the things that could cost you money this holiday season – people you need to buy gifts for, party contributions, and everything else I named above. Use a spreadsheet to make extra notes – where will you buy things, how much they will cost, the timeline for doing it. Keep this list with you at all times and use it to plan out your evenings and weekends – buy everything from the same store in one trip, visit stores on the same side of town on one day, etc. Check off items or make new lists as you go along, so you always have an idea of exactly what you have left. In your life, you plan to avoid surprises – do the same thing here.
- Consider group buying: If you give gifts to families (like your sister, husband, and their two kids), consider giving one family gift or one parent gift and one child gift instead of four individual gifts. This can cut down on shopping and wrapping time and overall money spent. A favorite gift of mine is a couple of age-appropriate board games and box of popcorn or candy. For parents, you can give a bottle of wine and the promise of free baby-sitting. You can extend this idea to people in the same age group or with the same interests. Consolidate trips and save time by buying multiples of the same item at the same time, and distribute appropriately. If this tip makes you reconsider the list above – revise as necessary. Life is about finding efficiencies to keep us going – this tip extends that idea to gift-giving.
- Look for coupons and deals: Now that you have your list, start scanning newspapers and websites for ways to bring down your cost. That will give you some extra money in case you go over on some items, have unplanned expenses come up, or fall victim to some of those convenience costs I talked about earlier. You do it for grocery shopping – why should holiday shopping be any different?
- Set a budget and stick to it: Do not spend more than you can afford – and if you’re putting it on credit, you can’t afford it. Add up the items on your list and decide how much money you can set aside for holiday spending, then set a holiday budget. If the money you have available is less than what you need, rethink your list. This is just like the rest of your life – spend less or earn more!
- Don’t be afraid to say no: Be realistic about how much you can afford to spend – in terms of both money AND time! Holiday spending should not come at the expense of emergency or retirement savings. Holiday activities should not mean you fall into bed exhausted at 2 AM each night, and neglect the needs of yourself or your family. You should give from the heart in a way that makes sense for you – and if that means some people just get cards or a box of cookies this year, or you miss the “awesome” party your neighbors throw every year, that’s ok!
- Take five minutes every day to regroup: At the end of each day, take five minutes to regroup. Look over your list and see what you’ve accomplished. Get together a plan for the next couple of days. Look at your calendar to determine what events you have coming up. If you track your budget carefully, record today’s items. Then close your eyes and recharge, even if just for a moment. In life, a little strength goes a long way, and the same goes for the holiday season.
- Learn lessons this year, and use them in the future: Nobody’s perfect. Even with the best planning you might spend a little more than you’d like. But use lessons from this year to do better next year. Whether it’s planning your spending earlier, saying yes to fewer invitations, keeping more frozen food available for quick meals, or going ahead and hiring that housekeeper, a lesson learned this year is time and money saved next year.
We can all learn something about controlling stress during the holidays, financial and otherwise. Share your lessons in the comments, and help a fellow reader out!