I was talking with a group of friends about the upcoming holidays and one said, “I’m so afraid of Christmas. I don’t know how we’re going to afford it and I just know we’re going to end up in financial trouble because of it. It terrifies me, but there’s nothing I can do about it!” The others in the group all chimed in with their own fears and worries, as well.
I sat there listening to the various tales of fear and despair wondering what, exactly, the problem was. It seems simple to me: Have the Christmas you can afford. If you’re strapped for cash say, “No” early and often. Enjoy what you can comfortably do and let the rest go. Problem solved, right? Why make yourself sick with worry over a spending situation that is completely within your control? When I finally got up the courage to say this very thing, the room fell into complete silence and six faces looked at me like I had a third eye stuck on my head.
“Well, you have to spend a lot of money at Christmas to have a good time,” one woman said. “The kids expect certain gifts, you have to buy for your nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters, and then there’s the entertaining. We have to have three parties — one for my husband’s coworkers, one for our friends, and one for family. It all costs so much!”
“And don’t forget the Christmas cards. We send out over one hundred each year, all custom printed with our year in review letter,” another said.
“Not to mention all the other gifts you have to give,” said another. “You have to give to teachers, the postman, the paper carrier, the garbage man, and the hairdresser. The expectations are so high.”
“And I can’t afford any of it this year,” wailed another friend. “It’ll all have to go on credit cards and we already have too much credit card debt!”
These women are not normally fearful. Most of them are very level headed, focused, and in-control individuals. But Christmas was turning them into terrified, helpless people and it wasn’t pretty to watch. I wondered: What makes otherwise normal people want to hide under the sofa when Christmas rolls around and how can we create a sane, enjoyable holiday that doesn’t involve the fear of financial ruin?
I understand how this fear comes about. We want every aspect of the holidays to be perfect. We want everyone to have a good time at our parties and talk about them for weeks afterwards. We want the fairy tale Christmas where our kids run to a tree brimming with presents and squeal in delight when they get everything they asked for. We want our relatives to be impressed with our prowess in the kitchen and awed by our decorations. Above all, we don’t want anyone to think we are struggling, or cheap, or that we can’t give as much as our friends and neighbors.
It’s an understandable situation. Everyone wants to be liked and admired. For most of us, the holidays mark the one time of year when our means are on display to people who otherwise wouldn’t know anything about our financial situation. People we rarely see are coming into our homes, seeing our possessions, and receiving gifts and cards from us. Like it or not, right or not, those people are passing subtle judgments against us based on the things they see and receive.
This creates a lot of pressure. It’s not that different from being in high school and not having the “right” shirt or handbag. Not doing Christmas “right” can make you feel ostracized from your circle of friends and coworkers. No matter that many of those friends and coworkers are racking up debt to have the “perfect” Christmas. It’s terrifying to be judged as “less than” and it’s equally terrifying (although courageous) to be the one to step out alone and say, “I can only do so much and I refuse to go overboard.”
Understanding how this fear comes about is the key to understanding that it doesn’t have to be that way. Every bit of the financial fear of Christmas is self-inflicted by us. There is nothing externally beyond our control that threatens us. It’s not the same financial fear that you experience when your spouse is laid off. The fear of Christmas comes about through our own need to keep up with others, to compete, and to be judged as “worthy” by our peers. We put the fear into ourselves and we can overcome it.
So how do you get past this fear of Christmas and enjoy a financially healthy holiday season? The answers are different for everyone, depending on how willing you are to do things differently, but here are some suggestions to get you started:
1. Find the true meaning of Christmas or Hanukah or your holiday of choice and celebrate that. Get back to the basics of your chosen holiday. None of the holidays we celebrate began as gift-giving bonanzas and never ending parties. Those traditions are ones we have chosen to add. Opting out of the madness does not diminish your enjoyment of, or respect for, the holiday.
2. Have the courage to be the one in your group to step back, take a deep breath and say, “This year we’re cutting back.” You’ll be surprised at the sighs of relief you hear from others who are happy that the stakes have been lowered. Most people don’t want to spend a ton of money at Christmas, but do so because they feel they must. If you take the first step to lower the stakes, chances are others will willingly follow. And if they don’t? Well, come February, you’ll still have money for heat and food.
3. Say, “No” early and often and mean it. A lot of overspending is tied to overcommitment. You agreed to host three parties when you knew you should have said you’d only host one. You agreed to buy gifts for every member of your (very) extended family when you should have suggested drawing names. You agreed to buy the food for Junior’s classroom party when you should have suggested everyone pitch in. Get comfortable with the word, “No” and use it any time you know you’re overcommitting yourself financially.
4. Start lowering expectations for kids early in the season. Make it clear that Santa can’t bring everything on the list, so they need to separate the “really wants” from the “nice to haves.” Then buy them a couple of their top wants and forget about the rest. Chances are that on Christmas morning, they won’t even remember all the things they asked for and will be ecstatic that they got their top choice.
5. Sit down and really think about who you want to buy presents for. Yes, it’s nice to be able to give to the garbage man, the letter carrier, the hairdresser, the paper boy and the teachers, but only if you can really afford it. Remember that these people are paid to do
their jobs during the year so Christmas gifts aren’t required. If someone has gone out of their way for you, a card and note is sufficient, otherwise let it go.
6. The same applies with your family. Do you really have to get a gift for every aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew and in-law? Probably not unless you have a special relationship with the person, and even then gifts of time are often appreciated more than physical objects. If gift swapping is a big deal in your family, suggest drawing names from a hat to reduce the burden on everyone.
7. Don’t want to or can’t afford to send Christmas cards? Then don’t, or send a few only to your closest friends and family members. Cards create a lot of waste, so not sending them is a present to the environment. Most people don’t really read or savor cards, anyway. The cards are displayed through the holiday and then tossed in the trash.
8. Make it a point to spend quality time with loved ones during the holiday, rather than basing the holiday solely on material goods. Bake cookies with the kids. Have the relatives over for a light supper instead of a big party and then all go to church together. Go out and look at lights and displays rather than hanging out at the mall. Get a group of friends together and go see a Christmas movie or play. Get past the “it’s all about the gift” mentality and have some fun.
9. Give your time to make the holiday fun for others. Volunteer as a family at a soup kitchen or a Toys for Tots drive. If you can sing, get a group together and carol at a nursing home or hospice. Offer to help decorate the children’s ward at the hospital. You’ll have fun, giving your time costs nothing, and you’ll be making great memories for yourself and others.
10. Take pride in what you are able to do and give, and then let the rest of it go. If you can only host one party instead of three, don’t be down about it or grouse about how you would have done more, but… Throw a great party within your means, have pride in what you can do, do it to the best of your ability, and then let others worry about the rest. Same with gift giving. If you can only give to your immediate family, don’t go around apologizing to everyone about how you would have given more, but… Just give what you can, choose gifts that will be appreciated, present them nicely and, rather than feeling bad if someone gives you something and you can’t reciprocate, simply say thank you and be happy. The point of giving and doing during the holidays is not to one-up each other or make others feel bad, but to make others happy. Be happy with what you do, give, and receive, and act in a way that cultivates that feeling in others.
Finally, realize that if someone is going to judge you negatively based on one day of the year, one party, or one gift, this is probably not someone you want to be associated with. There will always be those who find fault with others and there’s not much you can do about it. Incurring more debt won’t prevent it. Do only what you feel comfortable with and let others do as they will. A sound financial future is the best Christmas gift you can give yourself and your family, so don’t jeopardize it trying to meet the unrealistic expectations of others.
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