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6 Tips for a peaceful, meaningful holiday on a budget

As a clinician specializing in financial behavior, Amanda helps people live empowered, engaged, and educated financial lives.

Am I the only one who dreads the holidays? Between being busy all the time, spending a ton of money and stressing out about everything I have to remember, plan and do, I am wrung out like a dishcloth by New Year's.

Q: Am I the only one who dreads the holidays? Between being busy all the time, spending a ton of money and stressing out about everything I have to remember, plan and do, I am wrung out like a dishcloth by New Year's. I have memories of the holidays being so magical when I was a kid, and I want my kids to have that, too. But when I think about how crazy this upcoming month is going to be, I feel like I'm about to have a panic attack. The credit card bill in January just adds insult to injury. Help!

Ho Ho... Humbug

A: I hear you, Humbug. Let's start with a deep breath. This is Christmas, not armed combat. You can take steps right now to create a peaceful, meaning-filled holiday. I can't promise that it will look exactly like it did when you were younger, though I suspect that if you would have taken a break from your childlike wonder and checked in with your mother, you would have seen her sharing some of your present harried feelings. But I can promise that war (on your sanity) is over, if you want it.

Accept responsibility

Running yourself ragged to too many commitments doesn't just happen. Overspending doesn't just happen. Both occur when we fail to set appropriate boundaries. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and usually that's what happens when we say yes to everything and try to wow everyone.

Know what's important

Ask yourself what you want this year, and I don't mean from Santa. I mean what kind of experience you want. Pick something to focus on, like giving back, spending time with loved ones, being creative or getting in touch with your traditions. If you don't have an intention you risk being pulled into experiences and expenses you will later regret.

Have a financial boundary

Say it with me: "I will spend X dollars on the holidays this year." It can be that simple. You set the boundary, and work everything else out within that frame. Make a list of the people to whom you plan to give gifts, and then start to break down some rough dollar-amount planning. Go over on one person’s gift? It means getting discount-savvy on someone else's. And as I was reminded by Jeanette Pavini, the household savings guru of Coupons.com, when setting your budget don't forget to include areas of your regular budget where you might spend more than normally: extra groceries or alcohol for entertaining, gas for additional travel, gratuities/bonuses for service providers and supplies for gifts you plan to make. All the little things can add up if you're not careful.

Budget your time

The one area where I am determined to do better myself this year is in how I budget my time. I wish elves would come to my house to make four dozen cookies, but for now I'm going to have to put that into my calendar. Ditto time for planning, researching prices and promotions on gifts, preparation/travel time and precious time to rejuvenate. Time and money boundaries go hand in hand: The more rushed we are, the less likely we are to be value-savvy and the more likely we are to make impulsive splurges that we later regret.

Get comfortable with just saying "thank you"

Oh no! Someone you didn't plan (or budget) to give a gift to just gave you a lovely scented candle! What do you do? You say, "Oh, thank you, so-and-so. That is so thoughtful of you and I really appreciate it." If you must you can add, "I hope you don't mind that I don't have a gift for you. We are trying hard to simplify this year." You do not say, "I have something for you, too, but I left it at home. I'll drop it at your house tomorrow!" and then rush out to get her a candle in return. (I'm not a scented candle person, so I assume this is how that whole industry is perpetuated.) It can be uncomfortable to receive a gift without giving one, but when you express gratitude and give attention to the giver, that in itself is something in return. If you truly wish you'd included this person in your gifting plan, you might offer to take her out for coffee in January.

Know what you need, and ask for it

For some people, the bustle and social whirl of the holiday season is what makes it wonderful. For others, time to pause and reflect is more precious than any present. Sharing what you want is part and parcel of taking responsibility for your own experience.

The feelings you describe in your letter don't sound like those of an old misanthrope like Scrooge. They sound like the result of trying to do so much for others that you neglect to take care of yourself. Put the you back in yuletide by communicating honestly, setting appropriate boundaries and connecting with that old sense of magic. And that will make for a wonderful holiday season.

Photo credit: Hades2k/Flickr
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