“Happiness is not determined by what’s happening around you, but rather what’s happening inside you.”

– Adrian Corday

Ah, the holidays…

A joyful time. A time to share with family and friends. A time to celebrate, to give thanks, and to show gratitude for our blessings.

Laughter, beauty, good food and good cheer.

And stress.

That’s right. The best time of the year is also the most stressful. Why?

Money, of course. More specifically, spending it.

The fact is, holiday spending produces tremendous financial strain and anxiety for countless Americans. Last year one in three Americans admitted that they would rather skip the holidays than spend money on gifts.

After all, if you’ve splurged on yourself during the year, trying to restrain your spending come holiday time is a recipe for a guilt trip. Especially when you see the magical holiday experience that others are concocting on social media!

The end result of the pressure, the envy, and the guilt is one big whopper of stress, right when you should be enjoying the best time of year.

Luckily, I bring glad tidings from Doing Money Right—5 tips to avoid the stress, make your money go further, and take back the holiday season for what it’s meant to be…a time of joy.

I call it Doing Holidays Right.

#1—A holiday budget that works.

Close your eyes and imagine walking down 5th Avenue in New York City on Christmas Eve. The snow is falling, holiday lights are twinkling, block after block is filled with beautifully decorated shop windows. Can you see it? It’s a postcard-perfect picture of the holiday season!

Unfortunately, that’s because the stretch from 42nd Street to Central Park is one enormous fantasy—Tiffany’s and FAO Schwartz may sell the holiday dream, but they don’t cater to the real world.

Time to set a budget for the holidays.

Before getting started, keep in mind that holiday budgets are actually quite common. According to Coinstar, the majority of Americans did set a holiday budget last year…and 77% of them promptly exceeded that budget.

A budget that’s a pipe dream only sets you up for deeper disappointment!

So here are two ways to make sure your budget is strict and fool-proof.

Start with a list, and like Santa Claus—check it twice. You’ll want to write down who you’re buying gifts for with an estimated cost for each…and what you’ll need for hosting parties and attending events as well. According to that same Coinstar survey, entertaining is the second highest holiday expense outside of purchasing gifts.

Once you have a final number for your budget, withdraw that exact amount in cash.

Make a commitment to yourself to not pull out any more cash once it’s gone, no matter how much you might want to.

These two approaches will help anchor you to sanity, putting your budget on a more level playing field with the holiday pressure to spend.

Give your budget a fighting chance!

#2—Shop sales.

If anyone’s stressed out during the holidays, it’s the retailers. The pressure on these companies to perform well in the hypercompetitive and ultra-important holiday season is immense. For some retailers, the holiday season represents as much as 30% of their annual sales.

With stakes that high, you can bet they’re going to put their best sales forward.

Only…they won’t keep those sales around long. The closer you get to Christmas, the more the supply/demand pendulum swings back to their side.

The key? Get your shopping done early. That way, you can scout the best deals on the gifts at the top of your list.

Everyone knows about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and if you’re looking for deals on electronics and other big ticket items, this is in fact when the best deals will be on display—if you don’t mind braving the crowds. But for smaller items like clothing and apparel? You might want to start as early as Labor Day.

If your budget assumes paying normal retail price, then every great deal you find means extra cash! You can use that cash to supplement your budget, make a gift to charity, or stuff your own stocking with savings.

Who doesn’t love a good sale?

#3—The internet is your friend.

Brick-and-mortar stores clogged with stressed out shoppers quickly take the fun out of the holidays. Shopping online can prove a more convenient alternative. And…you may even save money on deals you wouldn’t normally find at your neighborhood mall.

More and more people are opting for online shopping for these very reasons.

2017 was the first year that shoppers spent more online than they did in-store—a significant shift, both culturally and economically. Department stores, once the bulwark of holiday shopping, fell to a distant third place behind online retailers and mass merchants like Walmart.

One downside to online shopping is high shipping costs. Focus on sites that offer free shipping. Besides saving money, you won’t have to deal with huge crowds and wait in excruciatingly long lines.

And don’t forget about rebate apps like ibotta and coupon apps like Honey that can maximize your savings hassle free!

Since the internet isn’t cash-friendly…consider doing your online shopping early before you withdraw your holiday cash. Otherwise, you might be tempted to spend all the cash anyway, which defeats the whole purpose of a budget.

#4—Shop local.

Maybe you’re the type of person who wants to enjoy the shopping experience – getting out of the house, browsing the shelves, stumbling across unexpected finds – but hates dealing with the crowds at your neighborhood mall.

Don’t forget about your local Mom & Pop stores! Here you can find one-of-a-kind gems, and you won’t have to battle the mob to get them.

There are, of course, many benefits to buying local besides the enhanced experience. Every $100 spend locally generates $45 of secondary local spending,  while the same $100 at a national retailer generates just $14. And on Small Business Saturday (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) you have the chance to find great deals!

Don’t forget about local charities either. They often raise money offering holiday gifts, such as handcrafted ornaments, artwork, and gourmet food products like honey and preserves. This might take up more of your budget, but the results are guaranteed to be unique and authentic.

Support your community and find a treasure!

#5—It really is the thought that counts.

Who said gifts have to be expensive? Don’t break the bank buying pricey gifts you can’t afford. And I’m not talking about being cheap…more like being thoughtful.

Unfortunately, many of us are not as good at giving gifts as we’d like to think we are. It isn’t for lack of trying—the problem is that we often buy a gift we think will make the recipient happiest at the point of exchange, when research shows that people prefer gifts that make them happy over the course of using that gift.

So don’t stress about finding the perfect, eye-popping gadget to unwrap! Instead, focus on what your loved one really wants and needs. More thoughtful, less expensive items are way more effective showing how much you care about the loved ones in your life.

And isn’t that the whole point?

The more thought you put in, the more meaningful the gift is. Think about who you’re buying the present for and what their interests and passions are.

When you choose a gift that truly reflects who they are—as well as how you feel about them—their eyes are sure to light up when opening it, regardless of how much it costs.

“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.”

– Roy L. Smith

The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time, so don’t allow financial stress to ruin the gift giving season.

Follow the tips listed above to keep your holiday spending in check so you can enjoy what really matters…spending quality time with those who are closest to you.

Because when you’re truly present for loved ones—instead of stressed about money—that’s the best gift of all.

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Are you Financial Adviser Compatible? Take the QUIZ here to find out. Byron W. Ellis, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®, CRPC®, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and Managing Director with United Capital Financial Advisers, LLC, a Financial Life Management firm. The information contained in this article is intended for information only is not a recommendation, and should not be considered investment advice. Please contact your financial adviser with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.

© Byron Ellis