The holidays can be a lot of fun — but for many of us, they can be the most stressful time of year. On top of cooking meals and juggling plans, finding the right gift — and at the right price — can be overwhelming.
And in a time of record inflation and high cost of living, this is no ordinary holiday season.
With all these stressors building up, how do we manage?
The pressure to spend
During the holidays, the pressure to spend can be a real burden — and it can come from all directions.
If you had a dime for every ad where a husband surprises his spouse with a new car, you'd have enough to follow suit — or at least enough to buy that comically large bow that always graces the roof.
But the reality is that very few of us have that kind of budget — and even that bow may be out of reach.
“Understanding that nearly everyone is under the same pressure may help people to have more honest conversations about their spending limits around the holidays, which reduces the sense that we have to spend because everyone else is spending,” says Jodie Voth, manager of Manitoba Blue Cross's Employee Assistance Program.
“Being upfront about the amount you're able to budget for a particular gift exchange or asking a question like, ‘What feels like a manageable amount to spend for our gift exchange this year?' can be a great way to get the conversation going. As is the case in every aspect of relationships, setting and maintaining healthy boundaries (even around spending!) makes for a healthy relationship.”
When shopping for gifts, setting a budget is key — but it's not always easy.
“Budgeting is daunting, because it often reveals inconvenient truths about your financial situation,” says Mark Binder, a chartered professional accountant and financial counsellor with Manitoba Blue Cross's Employee Assistance Program.
“People would rather avoid the truth than face it. But information is power, and you can't solve a problem that you don't know exists,” he says.
Start by identifying who you're shopping for. Once you've determined how many gifts you need, decide a reasonable total for each person and a few gift ideas for each. It's easy to overextend yourself, as even modest gifts add up when you're buying for the whole family.
If money is especially tight, you may want to decide on a total in advance, and then divide that total by the number of gifts you need to shop for.
“Budgets are simply an action plan, albeit a financial one,” Binder says. “However, every plan also needs to be flexible.. so, the dollar amount may have to stay more or less fixed — but how you spend it may have to be adjusted when you go shopping and put it into practice.”
If setting a budget is intimidating, Binder recommends withdrawing the cash for your budget and putting it into an envelope. Only buy the gifts with the money from the envelope. This will help keep you on task while giving you a tangible representation of the money you have left.
If you're not a fan of cash, or if you're shopping online, you can buy a prepaid credit card with your budget total — although keeping track of your remaining budget will be tougher.
Just as Santa relies on his team of elves and reindeer to get gifts down chimneys, enlisting others will help reduce your holiday stress.
“My wife likes to refer to a famous quotation: 'a problem shared is a problem halved,'” Binder says. “Even though budgeting is not a spectator sport, it helps to involve our loved ones. Taking on the entire task by yourself can seem overwhelming, especially because many feel they are imposing decisions on their loved ones. Involving all those affected in the process will tend to make everyone more committed to the budget, especially if they have a say in the decision-making process. Budgeting needs to be done with your family, not to your family.”
And sharing the holiday burden shouldn't be limited to spending.
“It's also important to share responsibility for ALL the holiday tasks,” Voth says. “Spending isn't the only burden. Calendar coordination and scheduling, meal planning, shopping, food preparation and travel are some pretty big tasks, and one person shouldn't be responsible for all of it for the whole family. Sit down together and figure out what needs to be done and who's going to do it. The holidays are much less fun if one person is assigned all the work that goes along with them - so everyone will enjoy the season more if all participate in making it merry!”
Budget your energy
We often think of a “budget” only applying to our finances — but we also have an energy budget, Voth says.
“Many people find the holidays exhausting for a variety of reasons — experiencing grief, challenging family relationships, or the amount of ‘people-ing' for the introverts among us,” she says. “If you usually find the holidays tiring, take a look at your commitments and be realistic about how much you can attend. This might mean sending your regrets or making a plan to stay for just a short time. And it never hurts to have a secret code to let your partner know it's time to get going!”
If you or someone you care about needs help, you can access support through Manitoba Blue Cross's Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program. Begin the process to access counselling services here. (Sign in to mybluecross® to confirm your coverage.)