when it’s not the most wonderful time of year
As a financial therapist, I talk with clients every day about their relationship with money. I was in session a few weeks ago with a young couple when the holidays came up.
“Ugh, the holidays,” one of them groaned. The other nodded in agreement. I watched their body language change as they slumped in their seats, defeated. I considered this reaction. It was more than not feeling excited, it was like they felt helpless. I asked, “Do you feel like a victim of the holidays?” The answer was a resounding yes.
The couple was burdened by expectation and didn’t feel in control of their spending this time of year. I’ve had several clients who feel the same way. For many of us, the holidays can feel like an obligatory financial drain. Emotionally, we may feel the weight of cultural or family expectations to be joyful all season long. By accepting these expectations as our own, we feel out of control, helpless, and victim to the holiday season.
If this strikes a chord with you, you’re not alone—and you’re not a Scrooge.
The Holiday Fairy Tale
So much of the pain we feel around the holidays (and outside of them) can be caused by the distance between our expectations and reality. My clients were trying to meet expectations they assumed their kids held. It turned out this was not necessarily true—they recognized that their kids are so young they likely didn’t have any expectations at all. We realized they were internalizing expectations that bypassed their own values.
A common cultural expectation is that the holiday season is a magical time of year, when in reality it can also be painful. Yes, it’s wonderful to see family members we haven’t seen since last year, but it can also bring up unpleasant feelings of not being seen as we are now. If we’ve lost someone we love, the holidays can be an acute reminder of their absence. On top of that, the shorter, darker days and cold, grey winter weather can put a real damper on our mood.
A common cultural expectation is that the holiday season is a magical time of year, when in reality it can also be painful.
When it comes to our finances, the holidays can stir up pressure to spend money. We might get an idea of finding the “perfect gift” for our loved ones and feel confirmation of this notion through marketing and social media. Unfortunately, this “perfect gift” doesn’t really exist. And when we can’t find it, it’s easy to compensate by buying more or focusing on dollar amounts. We may fixate on how much we “should” spend on each person. If we can’t afford that number, we might lean on our credit cards, saddling ourselves with debt just in time for the new year and the so-called fresh start.
This tension between rosy expectations and the practical reality is incredibly common. To get past it and unburden yourself from the pain of unmet expectations, we need to get to the root of what the holidays might be stirring up for each of us.
Heal Your Holiday Story
Think back to when you were a kid or a year you felt good. What were your favorite holiday traditions? What do you remember most fondly? What made the season feel magical and warm?
Exercise #1: Write a list of what’s important to you for the holidays. Think back to those positive memories. What’s the first warm and fuzzy thing that comes into your mind when you think about the holiday season?
Now think about this holiday season. What memories do you want to create? How do you want to have spent your time and money?
Exercise #2: When you look back on this year’s holiday season, what do you want to remember? How do you want to have spent your time and money? Make a list of what you’d like to do and assign each item a dollar amount. Note that some things might cost nothing at all.
Your answers to these questions may begin to inform your values. What did you notice that might bring you the most joy? Time with family and friends? Cooking a meal with people you love? Taking a winter nature walk?
With your answers in front of you, how does it feel to put down the “shoulds” and expectations and instead focus on what will fulfill you? Letting our intuition dictate how we spend time and money can result in decisions that align more closely with our values. By focusing on what matters to us, we may be able to hear our own voice more clearly. We may even feel in our bodies what we want rather than listening to outside sources for answers.
Letting our intuition dictate how we spend time and money can result in decisions that align more closely with our values.
In doing this exercise with my clients, they’re often surprised that what fulfills them most cost little or no money. This doesn’t mean that spending money on gifts is wrong. Quite the opposite: gift-giving can be a beautiful way to show someone you know them and care about them. It can be a love language.
Intuitive Holiday Shopping
To make gift-giving a beautiful experience for you and your loved ones, approach it with curiosity and non-judgement. Rather than creating a rigid holiday budget or setting an expectation of creating the perfect holiday with a gift, continue relying on your values and intuition.
Once you’ve realized that buying things for the people you love brings you joy, you put yourself back in the driver’s seat—you’re in charge of your money rather than the other way around. By using your intuition to come up with a plan for holiday shopping, you give yourself the opportunity to maintain control and focus on gift-giving as a beautiful act of love rather than something obligatory and materialistic.
Exercise #3: Open up your accounts and take an honest look at your finances. What do you intuitively feel you can spend on the holidays this year?
You can use your plan and your intuition as you purchase, too. Instead of looking for stuff your loved ones would like online or at the mall, you can spend some time beforehand thinking about what brings them joy. Head out with specific ideas in mind for gifts and experiences they’ll love.
Above all else, remember that it’s ok to not feel happy during the entire holiday season. It’s unrealistic for us to feel on cloud nine for three months just because of the calendar, and chances are, you’re not the only one.
Wishing you all an intuitive holiday season!
Wendy Wright is a licensed therapist who guides individuals, families, and clinicians to food and financial freedom. She lives in Denver.