Living paycheck to paycheck during the holidays can make a person feel like the overworked, underpaid Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol.” When times are tight, financial stress can temper or even stamp out holiday joy. Unfortunately, it’s a situation many people find themselves in this year.
In a recent GOBankingRates survey of 1,039 Americans age 18 and older, more than 40% reported that they were consistently living check-to-check. Another 21% said they sometimes live check-to-check, depending on the time of year.
Financial experts point to multiple reasons why so many of us are just getting by or full-on struggling this holiday season. Inflation, higher interest rates and over-dependence on credit have contributed. There are also issues involving entitlement and just living within our means.
“I think as a society, we have elevated what is ‘the basics,’” said Liz Hagg, a Ramsey Preferred Financial Coach based in Pennsylvania. “For example, dining out has become a necessity. Twenty years ago, we didn’t dine out the way we do now.”
“There’s lifestyle creep,” added Tim Miller, a financial advisor with Quaker Wealth Management in Moorestown, New Jersey. “You start making more money, you start spending more money.”
If these or other factors have you scraping by on bills, without much left over for holiday gifts and festivities, financial pros do have advice to offer — without telling you to turn into a Grinch or a Scrooge.
“As financial advisors, we’re hard-wired to tell people to save money,” Miller said. “It’s important that we do that. But we’re not saying don’t buy gifts for your family.” Here are six of those top tips.
Map Out Your Money, Come Up With a Plan, and Stick to It
Suzanne Scullion, the Virginia-based founder of G.R.A.C.E. Financial Coaching, has a three-point plan for avoiding debt during the holidays (either incurring it or making already-bad debt worse):
The first step involves temporarily stopping any ancillary saving you are doing and paying just the minimum on outstanding debt. These should resume in January. “You want to open up as much cash as possible,” Scullion explained.
The “challenge” part is about challenging your old holiday spending habits. Limit the number of gifts you’ll buy. Create a list you’ll stick to, seek out discounts and rebates, and consider buying second-hand.
Finally, be conscious of the choices you are making and the good effects they will produce. “If I take the time to make better financial choices now,” Scullion said, “how different will January look?”
Additionally, Hagg recommends using one of several free Christmas apps to plan and track your spending.
Embrace Less Expensive Holiday Gifts and Activities
Cookies in a jar. Homemade apple sauce or caramel sauce. Your own candles or bath bombs. A letter to someone telling them how much you appreciate them, perhaps in a frame.
These are a few of the numerous gift ideas Hagg offers. Homemade Christmas ornaments are another possibility and may be cherished in years to come. “When I put that on my tree every year, I’m going to be thinking about where I was when I got that ornament,” Hagg said.
Scullion’s tips include looking for posts about free holiday events near you. She says the number of options may surprise you. Scullion also suggests reducing expensive family gift-giving down to a “Secret Santa” mode, in which you focus your gift giving on a single person whose name you draw.
Looking for less expensive options gives many of us pause, in part because of fears about what others may think. Miller says those fears in your head may be worse than real life reactions, though. “People will understand if you want to have a more low-key holiday season,” he assured.
Cut Back on Social Media
Social media is great for many things. Cheering people up who are struggling financially is arguably not one of them. Particularly with posts during the holidays — or any time, really — often not reflecting the entire picture.
“Things are not what they look like on social media,” Hagg said. “It’s just one piece of a bigger pie.”
Scullion noted that social media can amplify a person’s feelings of financial inadequacy during the holidays, adding to a sense that they’re failing to ‘keep up.’” Miller also advises cutting back. “You’re looking at people all day, every day, and the expensive things they are buying,” he said. “You’re being inundated with so many promotions and products. People just need to stop focusing on what other people are doing … Not every situation is equal.”
Let Go of Any Shame You Are Feeling
Experts say a key tip for surviving the holidays while low on cash is to realize you aren’t alone. Sure, maybe your financial habits could use some improvement going forward. But don’t beat yourself up.
“If money is tight for you, you don’t need to be embarrassed,” Scullion said. “Between what we’ve been through with the pandemic, inflation … You’re not the only person dealing with it.”
Hagg also offered words of encouragement to those struggling financially at this time of year. “It doesn’t define you,” she said.
Avoid the Situation in the First Place
If you want things to feel different next holiday season, now is a great time to start.
“If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you have to budget before the holidays,” Miller said. “Make saving automatic, even if there’s not a lot … so you have a little cushion when it comes to the holiday season.”
He added, “Make little milestones out of it. Whatever that number is, whenever you hit that milestone, enjoy yourself. You want to be incentivized.”
Hagg advises starting in January and setting $20 aside each month. Come December, that’s $240 set aside for holiday spending. If you give up something you spend a couple of dollars a day on — like a coffee, perhaps — and set that money aside, you could have hundreds more.
“Money mapping” works like any other mapping, Hagg said. “Like any map, you have to follow the map,” she said. “People will create a map, then they don’t follow it.”
Scullion also advises setting a small amount aside each month — in a separate savings account.
Strive for the Right Mindset
During the holidays, it’s easy to get into “assembly line” mode and forget what this time of year is supposed to be all about. Hagg recommends taking a moment to get in touch with how you’re feeling as you make those gift purchases.
“Are we ’emotional buying?’” she asked. “Are we ‘hurry buying?’ Are we just checking a box, or are we giving it some thought?”
Acknowledging those feelings and moving past them can reduce pressure, including financial pressure. Hagg applies the same thinking to holiday gatherings. Do they really need to be that lavish?
“Is it the food that you’ll remember, or is the gathering?” Hagg asks. “Nine people out of 10 will tell you it’s the gathering. There is a mindset you have to have. Remind yourself what you’re grateful for. Sometimes, we guilt ourselves into thinking we have to spend.”
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