A Stress-Free Season

Denise Trowbridge

I'd like to kick back with eggnog and soak in some vintage Dean Martin holiday tunes. But the reality for me and many others is we're too busy running to school and work parties, making gifts and cooking, cleaning, traveling, hosting guests, and waiting in long lines at the mall for everything we "need" to create the perfect family holiday.

The December holidays, for many, have become a stress-maker, rather than a joyful season of togetherness. Stress affects not just mood, but money. When you're stressed and in a rush, you're more likely to overspend. Bankrate.com estimates 17 percent of middle-class families spend more than they budgeted for the holidays. January bills = ouch.

So cut the stress, and your pocketbook and blood pressure will benefit. How? There are "three areas in your life that you can balance - your time, your energy and your money," said Michelle Harcrow, a health educator at University of Alabama. "These three areas are not a cure-all, but can certainly help relieve a huge load of holiday hassle."

For a simpler, less stressful and more financially sound holiday:

Plan. Make a list. Like Santa. Make lists of who to give gifts to and what to give them. Keep it with you and updated at all times.

Think twice about homemade. Unless you're channeling Martha Stewart, homemade gifts aren't always a solution to a tiny budget. "A couple years ago I tried to hand-make everyone's gifts," said crafty Pickerington mom of two Sherri Snyder. "I'm not sure it was any cheaper, but it was much more time consuming and stressful." She did like giving the gifts, but wished she'd started making them earlier.

Say no. It's easy to commit more time (think baking, shopping, cleaning and parties) and money than you have. Know your limits. Remember to budget downtime for low-key family togetherness. And don't try to tackle all of the holiday jobs yourself. Enlist the whole family.

Communicate. If you want a toned-down holiday, speak to loved ones now or you'll be sucked into the gift-giving vortex for yet another year. For inspiration, turn to "The $100 Holiday" by Bill McKibben, a guide to a more family-centered holiday. Limiting the gift avalanche is part of it. "Christmas (has) become something to endure," he said. "Instead of an island of peace amid a busy life, it's an island of bustle."

Remember it's a season, not a day. Focusing on creating one "perfect" day (like Christmas) can ramp up stress. Remember it's a season, full of many activities and chances for fun and memories.

Give back. Before you buy something your family doesn't really need, consider using family resources to make a meaningful contribution to someone else's life. You could choose gifts for a foster child through Franklin County Children & Family Services Holiday Wish or buy a farm animal for a starving village through Heifer International. "We always get a name of a soldier who is overseas for the holidays and fill up a goody box to send to them," Snyder said. "Sometimes we even get a thank-you e-mail back."

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.