How to avoid financial stress at Christmas

Christmas is supposedly a season of peace, joy and goodwill. Is this typically our experience of Christmas or are we more likely, in fact, to be stressed worrying about how we are going to pay for the gifts and the celebrations? Financial obligations can take a toll on our peace of mind.

Our practice always gets busy in the month or two leading up to Christmas. Other psychologists and family doctors report a similar trend. It seems to indicate the Christmas season may more stressful than other times of the year.

Christmas can be a strain in a number of areas but money is one of the most pressing. Stress can make the Christmas season more of a trial than the joy it is purported to be.

The commercialism of Christmas with its attendant promotions and hype does not encourage monetary restraint. Most of us regard Christmas as a time for giving, receiving and celebrating, each with a hefty price tag. We feel we must fulfil the expectations of children, relatives, and friends. In all the excitement, we can throw restraint to the wind and leave ourselves with a credit card debt that precipitates a frugal January and February. We may even feel resentment if others do not appreciate our efforts or if we don’t have as much fun as we expected. Disciplined spending is difficult enough in a consumption-oriented society at any time of the year; Christmas can make a chronic problem acute.

How do we avoid financial stress at Christmas?

The first step is to recognise that we have a problem. If we are not saving a percentage of our income each year, we probably could improve the management of our finances. If we have a credit card debt upon which we pay interest then we are most likely overspending. If we get so caught up in the Christmas spirit that we are short of money for basic expenses such as rent or electricity then we have a serious problem with money management.

The second step is to realise that budgeting is not likely to help unless we change our attitude towards money and what it means to us. Money can mean different things to different people. Some see it as buying a good feeling: a new dress, a bottle of quality wine, or anything that makes us feel indulged and special. The problem with this sort of spending is that the thrill is short-lived. Some people spend money as a means to impress others. The problem with this spending is that it never stops. There will always be others who have more. Some people spend money on others in order to receive their regard or affection. Do the recipients like them for themselves or because they are generous? One never knows until one stops spending on them. Some people avoid spending out of fear of being financially insecure. How powerful is this fear? If it makes them miserly then it is unhealthy.

We may exhibit a number of these attitudes to money. A healthy attitude to money is relatively rare. Louise Hay, the popular writer of self-help books, has said that people’s attitudes to money are much more dysfunctional, on the whole than their attitudes to sex. She may be right.

The third step to solving financial stress at Christmas is to find a way of changing our attitude. This doesn’t mean eliminating the giving of presents at Christmas, nor does it mean missing out on a good time. It does mean feeling good enough about ourselves to fulfil our expectations of living within our means rather than our perceived obligations to others. Self-help books that address assumptions about money may help. A financial planner who examines all aspects of consumption and is courageous enough to be honest may shock us into changing our attitude. Psychologists may help by uncovering underlying views about our self- worth and possessions.

Because these remedies address ongoing financial problems, they usually take some time to implement. The short-term solution for Christmas stress is to determine how much you are willing to spend, and then plan gifts and celebrations that meet your budget.

Practical solutions can be found. Hand made gifts are always appreciated and often don’t cost a lot of money. Of course, they can take time to produce. Why not turn your hobby into gifts? Homemade preserves or sweets, hand towels, pottery, cards are a few possibilities. What about recycling some books or CD’s you are done with. Even gifts that were not suitable can be handed on. In our world of plenty, recycling is sensible and responsible. Most people will not be offended if you tell them the gift is recycled, but you don’t have to pass on that information.

If you hear your inner voice nagging you to be more generous, reply, “It’s the thought that counts. People like me for myself, not for how much I spend.” Remember that sensible people live within their means. If your family and friends cannot respect that, then it becomes their problem

Christmas often is a time of joy and renewed contact with friends and family. We are likely to enjoy the Christmas experience and minimise stress if we are realistic about our spending and find creative ways to show others we care.