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How to Spend Mindfully this Holiday Season

Jennifer Chambers appreciates that her parents and in-laws are very involved in her children's lives. But by child number three, she and her husband were overwhelmed by all the toys that flooded their household every Christmas. "We realized our house was just too small to add more and more stuff," says Chambers, 39, who lives in Veneta, OR. "That's not to say that we don't cycle through toys and put some in storage, but a whole minivan full of stuff every Christmas is a bit excessive."

So last year, they asked their parents to consider using the money they'd spend on the kids for the holidays to rent a vacation home for the holidays instead. "We were lucky to be able to visit both the Oregon Coast and a nice resort in Pennsylvania, and spent fabulous times with both sides of our family," Chambers says of their most recent holiday reunions.

The plan is to do something similar this year. "It doesn't have to be fancy," Chambers says. "It gives us a chance to be together, and that's what matters."

The Chambers family aren't the only ones feeling overwhelmed by the excess of the holidays. According to a Healthline survey, 62% of consumers said they found the holidays somewhat or very stressful — indicating that the frenzy of the season is causing stress at a time when the focus, in theory, should be on celebrating with family and friends.

When asked to describe holiday stress levels

0% Very stressful
0% Somewhat stressful
0% No stress
0% Not very stressful
When asked to describe holiday stress levels When asked to describe holiday stress levels

Healthline

"Something feels off," says Manisha Thakor, Director of Wealth Strategies for women at Buckingham & the BAM Alliance and author of Get Financially Naked. "We're so stressed shopping and running around and preparing and collecting, and the whole point of this is to be with family and be present with each other and instead we're focused on buying presents." Case in point: 4 out of 10 people start their holiday shopping before Halloween even hits, and per-person holiday spending has gone up almost every year since 2009 — with consumers estimated to spend an average of $936 this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

40% of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween. NRF Holiday Spending Survey

Consequently, there appears to be a growing number of people — and businesses — pushing back. A number of retailers kept their stores shuttered on Thanksgiving, giving employees the day to spend with family. Outdoor store REI even went as far as staying closed on Black Friday for the second year in a row, encouraging shoppers to spend time in the outdoors instead of shopping with their #OptOutside campaign. And about two million households have decided to drop gift giving entirely, according to a recent survey from Time Inc. and YouGov.

Total Historical Holiday Spending

Average spending per person in dollars per year

$1K $783 $831 $877 $892 $902 $928 $952
950
900
850
800
750

NRF Holiday Spending Survey

While throwing in the towel on gift-giving might not be part of your plan, there are several strategies to simplify your holidays that can save you time, hassle, or expense — or all of the above.

Make a gift policy. Start with your extended family and set some gifting rules. For instance, you might tell everyone that this year, you're only giving gifts to the children in your family, they each get one present, or that you respectfully ask that no one gives you any gifts. "Share it in loving fun," Thakor says. "You can call people individually and use it as a chance to catch up. You'll liberate yourself and everybody else to think about what their holiday policy wants to be."

Try a change of scenery. For Liz Guidone, 27, one stressful Thanksgiving too many led the family to make a big change. "Too many fights ensued over issues including the immense clean up and set up, food shopping, food prep, cooking, and what time we planned on eating," says Guidone, who lives in New Haven, CT. "Tears were shed by more than one family member." So in 2015, the family gathered at a resort in southeastern New York, where they enjoyed a beautiful meal with no clean-up and no fighting. "We all slept over and hiked the next day," Guidone says. "It was an absolutely lovely experience and we did the exact same thing again this year."

Take some things off your plate. The holidays aren't just about gift giving. For many people they also include travel, holiday cards, parties, and entertaining. Give yourself permission to let some of that go. "You may decide that you're no longer going to send out cards to everybody because it's exhausting," Thakor says. "And you're only going to one holiday party. It's the idea of sitting down and mindfully thinking about how you want to honor the holidays."

Use the holidays for "you" time. Holiday travel and time with extended family can be wonderful, but also exhausting — so consider letting go of the obligation to see family for every holiday. Trey Faulkner, 39, and his wife decided two years ago to spend one holiday per year on vacation, just the two of them. "We have downsized gifts to each other and upsized quality time together," says Faulkner, who lives in Reno, NV.

Opt for holiday experiences instead. "My family forgoes gifts and instead takes a vacation in mid-February," says Mike Catania, 36, who lives in Las Vegas. "We're headed for California's central coast this year and have no intention to ever go back to needless baubles. Memories last longer and take up less space."

For more on holiday stress — and how to avoid some of the most stressful situations of the season — read about 7 Awkward Holiday Money Moments, Solved.

Kate Ashford
Kate Ashford is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance, work and consumer trends. She has written for BBC, Forbes, LearnVest, Money, and Parents, among others.

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