Don't Let Holiday Debt Ruin Your Joy. How to Set Boundaries Around Spending This Season

November 26, 2018

Money can be a source of stress at any time of the year, but during the holiday season, it’s on everyone’s minds. Whether you have plenty to spend, or you’re on a tight budget, just feeling like everyone’s financial status is on display is enough to make you feel anxious. Suddenly, it seems like not only are you expected to spend copious amounts of money (money that you might not even have), you’re also acutely aware of the fact that people are judging you based on how much or how little you’re spending. No wonder an average American wound up over $1,000 in debt after the holiday season in 2017. Nearly half took more than 4 months to pay that off, and 2018 is likely to continue that trend.

It can be so difficult to set boundaries around your own spending and conversations about finance during this time of year. Money is never easy to talk about, and if you know that you don’t have a ton of extra cash to throw around, you might be feeling a sense of shame underneath the holiday cheer. It’s not just the pressure to spend—it’s the idea that if you don’t spend enough on your loved ones, you’re somehow doing it wrong.


How can you stick to your budget, have honest conversations about money, and ditch those shameful feelings? It can be a delicate balancing act, but by sticking to a few key guidelines, you’ll be able to navigate those situations like a personal finance pro.

1. Put holiday shopping money towards gifts your loved ones need. 

Holiday shopping doesn’t have to mean playing a guessing game. If you want to make sure that your money is going towards gifts that the people in your life will actually use frequently, ask them what they need. Yes, it might take a bit of the surprise out of it, but if you’re strapped for cash, you’ll feel better about your purchases knowing that nothing is going to waste. Plus, so many holiday gifts fall out of use after a few months—most people already own enough items that they don’t really need. You don’t have to add to the clutter. You may find that some of your loved ones don’t want “things” at all. 

2. Attend the events that you really care about.

Between travel expenses, outfits, food, and alcohol, going to holiday events can also eat up your budget. It’s perfectly fine to limit the number of parties that you go to. The holiday season is already a busy time for everyone, so most people will be understanding if you’re unable to attend. Prioritize events that are close by. You can also approach these parties with a frugal mindset—borrow or thrift a new outfit and carpool with another guest to save a little. 


3. Remember, there’s no shame in having to save. 

The advertising push to spend, spend, spend at this time of year is incessant—and with social media influencers and personalized ads based on your Internet searches, it’s only gotten more persuasive. Advertisers have one goal: to get you to spend more money! But there’s no shame in choosing to save. When those feelings of shame bubble up, ask yourself, “Who is profiting from this?” Who are those feelings really serving? There are countless ways to show love to the people in your life that don’t cost a dime. 

4. You don’t have to justify your budget.

If you need to be extra frugal during the holiday season, there’s always a chance that you might  catch some flack for it. And even if no one says it you directly, there’s always this strong implication that you have to spend a ton of money on the people in your life in order to prove that you really care. At the end of the day, this is nothing more than a marketing tactic. The amount of money that you spend on someone doesn’t determine your love for them. 


5. Plan for a “cash diet” or no-spend challenge in January. 

What if you have some great gift ideas in mind, but you know that it’s going to mean dipping into your savings and spending quite a bit more than you usually would? There’s always the option of spending a little extra now and saving a little extra next month. You might want to try a “cash diet” in January—keeping your cards in your wallet and spending only with cash can actually get you to spend less. Or you might want to be a little stricter and try a no-spend challenge. Obviously, you’ll still have to pay your bills, but a no-spend challenge would mean no unnecessary spending for the month. It can be tough, but you might be amazed at how much you save!

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Photo: Emily Iris Degn

Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She writes about veganism, travel, and wellness, and her writing has been published on platforms like Thought Catalog, Student Universe, The Financial Diet, and Wholesome Culture. She blogs daily on Medium, and you can check out more of her work on her website.


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