6 Holiday Budgeting Tips to Reduce Money-Related Stress, According to a Finance Pro

Photo: Stocksy/Carey Shaw
The holidays are a time for giving—but our desire to connect and give thanks, in the absence of a budget, can often lead to that too-familiar overwhelmed, under-water feeling. Studies show that much of this "festive stress"—as worry related to the holidays is called—can be attributed to gift-giving and receiving. Merriment can be expensive and holiday budgeting can help.

Despite the pandemic year, it doesn't seem as though many are reining in their spending this year. More than half of shoppers expect to spend equal or more this holiday season, per a new online survey from The Harris Poll and OpenX.

So, to help reduce money-related stress, here are some holiday budgeting tips to successfully navigate the season—call it my early holiday gift to you.

6 holiday budgeting tips to help you have a lower-stress season

1. Craft a plan—and stick to it

Really, though. It’s one thing to create a list of the important people in your life and a budget for each gift, but the true test is being able to stick with the plan, especially as marketers bombard us with deals and offers. Walking into the holiday frenzy without a clear set of goals and budgetary limits will make it very easy to feel ambushed and impulse purchases are more likely to be made. A plan of action will ensure you spend more intentionally and within your budget.

Pro Tip: Save your list in your phone and desktop so that you can always refer to it on the go or when surfing online.

2. Prioritize gifting

In an ideal world, we’d be able to share a gift with each and every loved one, but if you’re trying to stick to a budget, it may be best to focus on just your nearest, dearest, and littlest. In our family, children come first around the holidays, followed by immediate family. You can always suggest the adults participate in an anonymous gift grab with a monetary limit—say, $20 or $25.

Pro Tip: Skip gifting with your partner. Instead, plan a romantic dinner or weekend getaway later in the New Year when your budget’s got a bit more room.

3. Isolate your holiday budget

Once you’ve figured out how much you can affordably spend this holiday season, you might benefit from keeping the money in its own siloed “holiday” account—for safe-keeping and to get a clear and specific sense of how much you have remaining for holiday expenses. Transfer money from this account to pay for holiday-related expenses.

Pro Tip: You usually don’t need to open a new bank account for this purpose. You can consider creating an additional account within your existing profile.

4. Hunt for deals early and often

If you think the best deals will only go live on Black Friday, think again. These days, retailers are offering promotions year-round and you can expect many types of sales during the months leading up to the big December holidays. Check your go-to sites often. And before you check out, do a quick search for the name of the merchant and the word “coupon code” or “discount” to see what pops up. You can also go directly to sites like couponcode.com, retailmenot.com and coupons.com for codes to help you save an additional 10 to 25 percent at checkout.

Pro Tip: Keep an eye on your purchases for at least one or two weeks afterwards, in case the price drops. Retailers sometimes offer a price adjustment soon after a purchase and pay you back the difference. Another reason to keep your receipts!

5. Strategize your credit spend

It’s no surprise that credit cards are the top method for making purchases—especially around the holidays. And now it’s even speedier to check out if you have a card with tap to pay. So then while we’re at it, why not optimize our credit usage to either earn points to redeem in the New Year or purchase gifts with our points?

Opting for a credit card provides cash back and can be a big selling point this time of year. Chase Freedom Unlimited is currently offering a $200 bonus on Chase.com and in branches for new cardmembers after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months from account opening—easy to use during the holidays for gifts, plus the cash back on every purchase. (If you have a history of credit card debt, opening a new card likely isn't the best move for you.)

Pro Tip: Redeem your credit card points, or new cardmember bonus, to buy gift cards (the most requested holiday gift) for loved ones. No one has to know the gift was free!

6. Be honest

If spending money this holiday season feels burdensome, be open and honest with friends and family and explain ahead of time that you won’t be doing traditional gifting this year because you’ve got big goals to achieve. They should understand.

But remember—gifts don’t need to cost much. For example: baked goods, homemade photo calendars, and gift certificates for favors, such as free babysitting, are thoughtful presents everyone will appreciate.

Pro Tip: A great gift is offering to help family members who tend to take the lead around hosting and organizing gatherings. It can be a big lift if you’ve got a big family. Offering your time and initiative to take some of the work off this person’s plate will be an invaluable gift.

Originally published November 11, 2019; updated December 4, 2020.

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