One of the ways my family kicks off the holiday season is to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It’s an admittedly cheesy movie but the goofy Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, is hard not to like as he struggles to pull off the perfect old-fashioned family Christmas, one twinkle light, decoration, and tradition at a time. When his best-laid plans start to unravel, culminating in learning he won’t receive the annual bonus he’d already spent on a swimming pool, holiday spirit devolves into rage. He grabs his chainsaw, Santa hat atop his head, and ‘fixes’ the newel post by sawing it clean off.
Hopefully this season won’t find you brandishing a chainsaw, but it may find you feeling like the festivity has turned into stress. As it did with Clark, stress often peaks when holiday fantasy doesn’t quite line up with financial reality. Our own expectations compounded by the external pressures to be the ideal gift giver, magic maker or happy hostess can lead us down a path toward a financial hangover come January. Fortunately, some of the most common holiday stressors have solutions that can be found outside our wallet.
Perfect Gift Pressure
For some of us, giving consists of buying a gift card and sticking it in a bag. Others of us won’t be satisfied until we find the perfect gift for every person on our list. We’ll spend hours racking our brains and scouring gift guides until we land on the item that proves to our loved ones how much we care.
In our culture, gifts are often used to communicate how we feel about someone. We use them to show our love and to demonstrate how important a person is to us. When it comes time to buy, the need for a gift to say the right thing is often prioritized over whether it fits in our budget. We worry our kids will feel less loved if they get fewer or less expensive gifts this year than last. We pass over the generic item because the name brand will send the message that we truly care. It’s easy to justify a splurge when we feel like we’re nurturing a relationship and making others feel good.
If you find yourself suffering from perfect gift pressure, consider two things. First, ask yourself if the stakes really are as high as they feel right now. Think of all the ways you show your loved ones you care throughout the year. Chances are they know how you feel and don’t put as much stock in their gift as you do. Second, think about what you’re trying to communicate and whether there is another way to send that message. Instead of a pricey gift, maybe you spend time together going through old holiday photos, sharing your favorite memories or volunteering together. In other words, show your love in a different way. 25 Ways to Show Your Love at Christmas Besides Gifts
Overspending on Gifts
Though we generally think of gifts as something for others, they also serve as an influence over how others see us. The gifts we buy or the donations we make can subconsciously be our way of portraying ourselves as affluent or generous. At first blush, this might seem shallow but when we delve a little deeper, we find that the drive to control our image is a lot more about fear than it is about ego.
This is the time of year during which we collectively engage in mass consumerism. We may not share the same religious traditions as our neighbor but nearly all of us can be found shopping from Brown Thursday (formerly known as Thanksgiving) through the end of the year. It’s nearly impossible to escape the myriad of emails, texts, commercials, pop-up ads, coupons and catalogs inviting you to join in the spending spree.
Our evolution has trained us to be hyper-sensitive to the actions of the group. Buried underneath all the sophisticated, conscious, rational parts of our brain lives a system whose sole function is to keep us alive. It tells us to remain part of the group and avoid ostracization at all cost, because to go it alone is a threat to our survival. It might seem a bit dramatic to think that our holiday shopping is driven by an instinct to survive, but I challenge you to imagine a more vivid example of the herd mentality than the Black Friday sale at Walmart. If we want to feel like part of the group, we’re going to shop even if we can’t afford it.
Another part of being in the herd is not standing out. Within our social circles, there are established norms for what people give and donate at the holidays. If every member of our family is accustomed to giving extravagant gifts, we’re likely to do the same simply to conform. The pain of being judged for having less or simply spending less is an emotion most of us would like to avoid. Throughout the year, we may be able to downplay that our financial situation doesn’t match our peers, but the holidays put a spotlight on the discrepancies. We’ll willingly spend more than we should to deflect that negative attention.
To avoid spending for status, try to determine what emotional need a purchase is serving. The negative emotion is a weed you can rid temporarily through spending, but until you get to the root it will come back again and again. In the meanwhile, shop when you feel good and with people who make you comfortable, not those you want to impress. Reject the urge to hide your situation. Share a goal you are trying to achieve and explain you are spending less intentionally. Where you may expect judgment, you might find support.
The holidays are a time for peace, joy and nostalgia, but they also bring feelings of stress, pressure and anxiety. Managing our negative emotions is the key to keeping our finances – and our newel post – intact.