Avoid the Holiday Blues and Save Your Sanity

December brings a particular kind of panic to many people.  Yes, there are the major holidays, which are meant to be a time of happiness and joy, but all too often those feelings are overshadowed by the menu planning, the juggling of schedules around school concerts and other events, and the hard decisions about who to spend the holidays with.  But the biggest source of panic seems to be around the rituals of gift-giving.  Retailers waste no time or expense to play on that fear and trepidation.  This is nothing new.  What is a recent phenomenon, however, is the whole shopping season that starts with Black Friday and ends with Boxing Day.

Now, more than ever, retailers seem to try even harder to make people part with their money in the name of holiday gifting.  And let’s face it; all of the pressure to find the best deal and to buy more stuff just adds to the stress and anxiety that the holidays bring.  Everything to do with the holidays–the lights, the Christmas music and special markets—all feel like shopping and spending are emphasized rather than feelings of peace and goodwill.

Advertisers try to convince consumers that there are amazing deals to be had, that they won’t find better deals at any other time of the year.  This has led to people morphing into crazy shopping fiends who must pursue the deals at all costs.  Just look at all the television news reports that show people camping out for days in front of department stores or others that show stampeding herds clamoring to get their hands on dirt-cheap flat screen TVs or designer handbags.  The scrum looks like a combination of Lord of the Flies and The Running of the Bulls.

The Internet age has brought an alternative to physically going to malls to bargain-hunt.  People can also shop online in in the comfort of their home, even wearing their pajamas if they want to.  It makes shopping feel all so easy and civilized—just add items to your virtual shopping cart, pop in your credit card details, and BAM! The goods get delivered to your doorstep.  No fuss, no muss.

But all too often, the initial euphoria of pursuing all those deals leads to buyer’s regret when the huge credit card statements arrive in the new year.  And don’t forget about the related fallout from too much shopping; there is the spring garage sale season where people unload all the stuff they’ve bought.  Then there is the whole decluttering industry as well as the self-storage industry which exist to help people deal with all the stuff that they can’t cope with.

Yet the whole holiday shopping season marches on.  The US-based National Retail Federation predicts that 2017 holiday spending will be up from last year and younger shoppers will be the demographic who spend the most on gifts and participate the most in bargain hunting.  The Black Friday phenomenon is a more recent arrival in Canada, but the feverish spending is still there.  Finding hard data for 2017 is difficult because the numbers are still being crunched, but Canadians are predicted to spend much more during the holidays than they normally would and break their budgets more this year than last year to get those holiday deals.

Many families are feeling the pinch in their finances for many reasons: job loss, personal debt, and high household bills, just to name a few.  But it is possible to resist the spending pressure and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to help.

First, a bit of planning can go a long way.  Sit down, either on your own or as a family, and come up with some ways to celebrate coming the December holidays that don’t involve hanging out at a mall.  Just making some lists or openly discussing plans and goals for what you want the season to look like can be freeing.  Think of activities that are free or don’t cost very much.  Spending quality time rather than money can be a wonderful focus.

In terms of gift giving, setting a budget is common sense, but, in reality, it is so easy to toss that aside when faced with the many situations that occur this time of year; sticking to a budget can be difficult when faced with coffees and lunches out with friends and relatives, office parties, or just being unable to resist the lure of the shopping mall.  In terms of gift giving, while it would be wonderful to give a store-bought gift to everyone in your life, that is just not realistic.  Instead, try to come up with other ways to appreciate them.  It might be be hosting a games night or potluck dinner, or sending them a handwritten letter or card to tell them how much they mean to you.

For those people in your life who you can’t avoid giving a gift, coming up with a creative yet meaningful gift is often a huge challenge.  But rather than trying to buy elaborate presents, give a small gift with great personal meaning for both you, the giver, as well as the recipient.  A copy of a friend’s favourite book signed by the author, a gift box made up of lots of small gifts that the recipient will enjoy, something that would help with their work or a hobby, or a handmade gift that comes with a hefty dose of “heart” will mean so much more than just buying any old thing at a department store.

One trend that is gaining traction is to gift experiences, not material goods.  Purchasing a class, be it swimming or dance lessons, a continuing education class at a college or university, or an opportunity for the recipient to learn something that they haven’t done before is a great gift idea.  An alternative is to purchase a gift card for a day out somewhere, or even to buy a membership to a local attraction that the recipient or perhaps their whole family would enjoy.  Gift cards for a favourite restaurant or tickets to a local sporting event or concert may also be eagerly received.

As well, giving a gift on behalf of the recipient to a charity is often overlooked.  The buy-a-goat type programs for overseas development agencies have become more popular in recent years but are still not a popular choice compared to the usual gifts.  Alternatively, a gift certificate to the micro-loan provider kiva.org will literally be a gift that keeps on giving because it can be used to provide loans over and over again.  But also think locally, and support charities that do some tangible good in your area by either giving the gift of your time or supporting them through donations.  Get together with work colleagues, friends or relatives to do some good for people in your area who are less fortunate.

These are just a few possibilities of how you can celebrate the season that will be more meaningful long after December fades away.  It may take some time and effort to break the shopping habit, but with that and a bit of creativity, that effort may save your sanity—and your budget.