One way to reduce holiday stress: reframe gift traditions

Have you started making your holiday gift list?

Do you find that question difficult to answer?

Holiday shopping can raise a slew of anxiety-inducing concerns. What does the scent you choose for your sister-in-law’s candle say about your feelings for her? Is your son still interested in the video game he mentioned in August? Why is a hair curling iron $600?

According to NerdWallet’s 2023 Holiday Shopping Report, more than half of holiday shoppers (55%) are stressed out about buying gifts.

Consider making gift-giving a smaller and less expensive part of your holiday to reduce shopping stress. Traditions are difficult to change in many circles, so here are some pointers to get you started.

Communicate spending expectations

According to Ambus Hunter IV, an accredited financial counselor based in Baltimore, if you want to change the way your group gives gifts, communicate your financial boundaries clearly. This could imply establishing a lower spending limit than in previous years.

Whether money is tight this year, you’re working toward a savings goal, or you want to permanently cut gift-giving costs, Hunter advises being open with your loved ones about why you want to change the tradition and what you want to do instead.

Sharing personal financial information can be awkward, so start by suggesting a dollar amount that works for your budget. Simply be willing to negotiate, he advises.

“This ultimately is a compromise among all of you, and being willing to hear other sides and being willing to compromise is going to be key,” he said.

Start a new tradition

Introducing new ways of giving, in addition to a spending limit, can help to reduce costs even further.

The Secret Santa method, in which everyone in a group draws a name and buys a gift for that person anonymously, is a popular option.

White elephant gift exchanges are similar, despite their various names and interpretations. In general, everyone buys one gift under a certain dollar amount, and on the holiday, everyone chooses one wrapped gift from a pile.

Brittany Wolff, a certified financial planner, previously hosted a thrift-themed white elephant party with her husband’s cousins.

“That was the most fun Christmas event ever, because it wasn’t about spending that much money, it wasn’t about getting something of value, it was about what was the most fun thing you can find at a thrift store,” Wolff said.

You could also go the “want, need, wear, read” route and purchase a gift for each of the verbs. This theme is ideal for children, but adults can also use it. Hunter claims that one year he came up with his own theme, giving each adult family member a bottle of wine and a book.

Make the thought count

A budget vacation does not have to mean sacrificing quality. Medina Colaku, a New Jersey-based home and lifestyle content creator who specializes in secondhand materials, suggests changing your perspective: quality this year may mean thoughtful rather than expensive.

She claims that you don’t have to be a natural gift-giver to make this work.

“I think what makes it special is the effort, the time, the attention behind whatever you’re giving,” she said.

You could make a special cookie recipe for a vegan friend, propagate a plant for someone with a green thumb, or combine spices and herbs in a fancy bottle for the chef in your family.

Replace gift-giving with an activity

Opening presents is a main event in some circles during holiday gatherings, so if you’re cutting back on gift-giving, you may need to coordinate a new activity.

Wolff, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina, creates a list of ideas that she believes everyone in her family would enjoy, then polls them using a Google form. A trip to the National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina, was won one year.

She planned a big brunch and a walk around downtown for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

“I do think somebody has to spearhead it, though,” she said. “So if you are going to be the one to bring it up, be ready to [plan it].”

It could be a day of volunteering, a cookie bake-off, or a game in your group. Hunter’s family engages in charades.

“That’s one of my favorite parts of our get-together,” he says, “and in those moments, no one cares about gifts” or how much money was spent.

Spend with January in mind

Hunter has one piece of advice for holiday shoppers: “Do not go into debt for holiday spending.”

Even with spending limits, you may require additional funds to cover other holiday expenses. Consider the following alternatives to using your credit card this holiday season:

  • Look through your budget for expenses you can eliminate, even if only for a month or two, such as subscriptions and other memberships.
  • Get a part-time job or sell some of your belongings on Facebook Marketplace or an app like OfferUp.
  • When shopping for gifts or decorations, compare prices at various retailers and look for holiday sales.

If you decide to finance your purchases, look for the most affordable options. This could be a 0% APR credit card, a cash-back store card, or an interest-free “buy now, pay later” plan.

Make a plan to pay off the gifts in the new year with any financing option, Hunter advises.

“Once the Christmas tree is down, the lights are off and we’re in that cold and bland January, those credit card bills are showing up,” Hunter said.

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