Money can't buy happiness, but it sure can buy a lot of gifts. So if you're running low on cash during the holidays and have a lot of family and friends to buy presents for, this can be a frustrating season. Here are seven strategies to help you combat financial stress.
Budget. Carefully budgeting for holiday gifts is an obvious strategy that isn't very satisfying if you're behind on bills, haven't bought anything and are panicking with Christmas just weeks away. (Hanukkah, of course, came early this year, ending Dec. 5.)
Still, who can argue with the idea of planning what you will spend? While your budget may not look pretty, do what you can. Amitrajeet Batabyal, an economics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology's College of Liberal Arts in Rochester, N.Y., suggests that after you set a budget, aim to pay cash for your purchases, shop online to efficiently find sale prices and avoid applying for department store credit cards that can put you further into debt.
Avoid stressful shopping situations. Shopping during the holidays can be taxing even when you have money, observes Robert Epstein, a psychology professor at the University of the South Pacific and a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Epstein is also the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. He says shopping on a deadline can make anyone sweat and suggests fighting stress proactively.
In other words, try to arrange things so that you never even encounter the actual stressors," Epstein says. "That can mean buying things well in advance of the deadlines, shopping only when the crowds are small, buying over the Internet with a cocktail in your hand – doing whatever it takes so that you never have to fight for a parking space or deal with a rude cashier. Fight stress before it starts."
And you may find that you make smarter budgetary decisions without a lot of stress and chaos surrounding you.
If you're truly in despair, consider the National Suicide Hotline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org; 800-273-8255). Hopefully you aren't anywhere near that depressed; You're just understandably frustrated and stressed by the idea of paying your usual bills while trying to buy what seems like an inordinate amount of gifts.
If that's the case, "get the whole family on board so that everyone feels comfortable with the idea of a [holiday budget] plan," suggests Lynn Ballou, a certified financial planner and owner of an investment advisory firm in Lafayette, Calif.
If you have kids that are old enough to understand, Ballou recommends telling them in advance that the number or quality of gifts will be modest. And recognize that you may be doing them a favor in the long run. "Raising kids who really understand and internalize that message are far more likely to manage their own fiscal lives better than those whose parents never set money boundaries," Ballou says.
Remember what's really important. "The best way to cope with a materialistic time of year is not to fall prey to pressure from the retail world and spend because it is what you do during the holidays," says Carla Blair-Gamblian, a home loan consultant with Veterans United Home Loans. "The holiday is about religion and family. Focus on that."
That's easier said than done if you have kids with high expectations or materialistic parents, siblings, cousins and friends, but it's irrefutable advice.
Be creative with your gift-giving. If making, say, handmade soap and other crafts isn't an option due to your lack of artistic skill, you could always give someone the gift of time.
"Offering your time is the biggest gesture since it's the one thing everyone lacks during this time of year. Offering to babysit your sister's kids while they spend the day shopping for gifts ... or helping a good friend prepare meals for a holiday party is a very generous gift that costs little more than time," says Farnoosh Torabi, a personal finance author and host of the weekly video series "Financially Fit," on Yahoo.
Don't spend the holidays alone. If you're going to bow out of gift-giving, you may feel tempted to skip family get-togethers. Don't, urges Torabi. "The holidays are really about spending time with loved ones. Your physical presence means more than anything," she says.
Don't blow things out of proportion. Yes, if you wanted to buy your children an iPad or Nintendo Wii, and they're going to have to settle for some board games and a Slinky, there's no way around it.
And yet Blair-Gamblian offers the most spot-on advice, which every parent, if they look back on their own childhood, will probably instantly see as correct: "At the end of the day, most children don't remember many of their holiday gifts anyway," she says.
The gifts they'll probably remember more than anything, she says, are the tacky socks from Grandma or a journal from their mother. "Trendy items come with a large price tag and a short shelf life," Blair-Gamblian says. "It's just not worth your hard-earned dollars."
So when it comes to holiday giving, focus on what you can do – not on what you can't.
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