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Christmas present

I grew up in a household where the holidays were a huge deal. The days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were the busiest time of year.  

Our house was decorated from floor to ceiling. We made a million different kinds of cookies, baked a special family holiday bread to both eat and give away to everyone we knew, and made biscotti and other treats for everyone at my dad’s work. We even made at least 20 gingerbread houses a year to give to all of our current and former teachers.

In addition to being in charge of all of these merry-making activities, my mom was out buying gifts for all of us, wrapping presents, sending Christmas cards, and coordinating the fundraising efforts for the local food pantry.

Even though she didn’t work outside the home, my mom was often awake well after we went to bed, waiting for bread or cookies to bake or wrapping presents when we were asleep. Looking back, I realize that this was a very stressful time of year for her.

While there were many aspects of the holidays that she enjoyed, she looks back now and says, “I have no idea how I did it all. I wanted to make the holidays nice for everyone. That’s what my mom did. That’s what my grandmother did. I remember wishing that I had time to sit down and just enjoy it and breathe.”

Sadly, her story is not unique.

In fact, people experience more stress, anxiety, and depression over the holidays than at any other time of year. It’s so common that the term “Holiday Stress” has been coined by the American Psychological Association to describe the way that people feel around the holidays. There are countless articles are dedicated to helping you cope with and relieve Holiday stress.

What Causes Holiday Stress?

There are a number of different things that cause holiday stress but all of these can be tied to two things: Time and Money (and of course, the expectations of how you spend your time and money).

Overspending and Accumulating Debt

According to the American Research Group, Americans expect to spend $835 on average on Christmas gifts this year, which is down slightly from $851 in 2020.  

Now, let’s remember that this is just what people are EXPECTING to spend. We also know that the majority of people end up going over their budget for the holidays.

In fact, at the end of December 2020, we learned that 31% of consumers took on debt to pay for the holidays. Of those who incurred holiday debt, the average amount borrowed was $1,381. And, 89% of those who took on holiday debt do not expect to be able to pay it off within one month.

Christmas gifts

And about 20% of people will only pay the minimums on this debt. This means they’ll be paying for Christmas of 2020 until 2025.

Debt can add a lot of stress during the holiday season. In fact, 66% of borrowers said they were stressed about their debt.

Free Time is Devoted to “Merry-Making”

Not only do people spend a lot of money on the holidays they also use a lot of their precious time.  According to Consumer Reports, each American will spend an average of 42 hours buying holiday gifts, traveling to and attending holiday parties.

In this survey, we learn that:

  • People will spend 15 hours on average shopping for gifts – 10 hours for men on average, 20 hours for women on average
  • People will spend 3 hours on average wrapping gifts
  • People will spend 15 hours on average attending holiday parties or other events
  • People will travel an average of 7.4 hours to or from their holiday destination. 24% will travel 10 hours or more.  

Given the small number of things they actually asked about in the survey, I expect that people spend much more time on “merry-making”  and “holiday stress coping” activities that didn’t make their list.

gingerbread christmas cookies

Above and beyond the 42 hours are the time spent on the following activities:

  • Decorating one’s home
  • Sending holiday cards (which also might include the advance planning of family photos)
  • Making cookies, holiday bread, or anything other kinds of holiday food
  • If you host your own holiday gathering, the planning, cooking and cleaning up
  • Time spent worrying about whether you got an appropriate gift, potential conflict with family members, or whether you’ve met the expectations of “great-aunt Jane.”

Packing too much into our days can cause a lot of stress. And, this is compounded by not getting enough sleep and feeling like you are constantly on the go.

Holiday Stress takes a Disproportionate Toll on Women

While holiday stress impacts everyone, it does take a disproportionate toll on women. As shared above, women spend on average double the amount of time as men shopping for gifts.  I would expect this trend to hold true for other “merry-making” activities.

While I don’t have hard data on the specifics of other “merry-making” activities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, women spend 37% more time each day on household activities than men do.

While this may not be true in every household, women are often the ones who make Christmas happen. They often are the ones who send out the cards, bake the cookies, plan the holiday parties, make food to bring to another’s party, etc.

However, holiday stress doesn’t only arise from the sheer amount of time spent on “merry-making” activities. It often comes from the emotional labor associated with “keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy” and making things “magical for those around you.”

Woman decorating christmas tree

Remember, my mom’s statement above, when she said: “I always wanted to make the holidays nice for everyone.”

During the holidays, there are not only more things to do, but there are also more things to keep track of and delegate. These include the calendar of parties, ensuring we don’t run out of the sugar cookies (heaven forbid!), getting the Christmas cards out on time, and acquiring an equal amount of Christmas presents (or an equal amount of money spent on them) for each person under the tree. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

While not always the case, women typically spend more time and emotional energy on these activities. This, then, causes disproportionate amounts of anxiety and depression for women during the holiday season.  

Why do we Buy into this System that makes us Miserable?

While each person’s reasons are unique, I think it all comes back to our culture of consumption. If we haven’t taken enough time to decide what we uniquely value, we end up doing what society tells us is “normal” or desirable. The expectations that our families, friends, and wider society have of us are often tied to these same cultural norms.

I’m not saying that because there is a cultural norm that no holiday activities genuinely make us happy. There are many “merry-making” activities that do make us happy, but many don’t.

These cultural norms and shoulds can be so ingrained that it’s hard to know that alternatives actually exist.

Consumerism and Holiday Stress

This culture of consumerism that we have in the United States leads us to spend more time and more money buying gifts and feeling obligated to do all of the “merry-making” activities. We often do them without questioning whether we want or need to be doing them and without assessing what the consequences would be if we didn’t.  

In fact, consumerism is so ingrained that I saw an article the other day titled, “How much should you spend on Christmas gifts given your income?

In this article, they said people should spend 1% of your annual income on gifts. I don’t mean to yell, but for emphasis, but I feel I need to. THEY SAID YOU SHOULD SPEND ONE PERCENT OF YOUR ANNUAL INCOME ON GIFTS.


It wasn’t you shouldn’t spend more than 1%, although that would have been a better title. It was you SHOULD spend 1% of your annual income on gifts.

The vast majority of people in our country are living paycheck to paycheck. Then, they are told they should spend 1% of their annual income on Christmas gifts. Of course, this will add to the stress they likely already feel.

So for a good number of people, gifts go on credit cards that take months (or years) to pay off. This leaves the majority of people in our country stuck on the hamster wheel paying interest on the debt or not saving toward our goals. So much of this money could be used for other purposes!

All of these expectations go beyond gift-giving to the ways we spend our money and time throughout the holiday season.

How to Relieve Holiday Stress

Our family Christmas looks a lot different now than it used to.

When I asked my mom about what changed for her, she said, “I realized that I wanted to spend time on the things that were important to me. The three things I enjoy most are spending quality time with family, keeping traditions alive, and doing something to help people in need. I realized it was okay to not send Christmas cards, make 10 types of cookies, and decorate the house from floor to ceiling. My most important thing is to spend time with you guys.”

My mom has figured out what she really values in the holiday season, and she has figured out how to align both her time and her spending with those values. Because of that, she now enjoys the holidays a whole lot more and finds them much less stressful than they used to be.

When pursuing financial independence or freedom, I view money as a tool that can help me live a life aligned with my values. This is also a great lens to view the holiday season.

What are your values this holiday season? How can you align the ways you spend your money and your time to those values?

How Will I Align my Time and Money with my Values this Holiday Season?

I am fortunate to have come from a family that stopped doing extravagant Christmases when I was in my late teens, so I’ve had a great example to follow over the last 15+ years of my life.

When we think about the question of how we can align our time and our money with our values, we realized that it’s our relationships that we value most. We’ve become much more intentional about the ways that we spend our time and money to build these relationships, while at the same time ensuring our spending stays aligned with our financial goals.

Give Timeless (or Free) Gifts

Corey and I have never really given gifts to each other for Christmas. When we were first married, this was out of necessity because we were barely making ends meet. However, when we did have more spending money, we decided not to do Christmas gifts. We still wanted to do something special for each other, so we created a different tradition instead.

Every year, we write each other a New Year’s Letter. In this letter, we reflect on the past year – things we’ve learned, things we appreciate about the other person, and we share our hopes for the year to come. These letters are a better gift than anything money could buy. This year we’ll be writing our 10th set of New Year’s Letters.  Here’s to many more!

While we still do some small gifts for close family and friends, we don’t need to worry about what to get each other.

Create Traditions

With our family, the priority for us is to spend time together. We have a traditional breakfast meal we eat every year (french toast, breakfast sausage, and fruit salad) and a traditional Christmas dinner, and we spend the full day together.  

Many years, we would also spend part of the day putting together “going home baskets” for families in need. These baskets are filled with everything one might need for their first home (sheets, pillow, blanket, plates, cups, silverware, cleaning supplies, towels, etc.) and given to people who are transitioning from a shelter into permanent housing.  

We usually host or attend a small holiday party with our closest friends. We also have a tradition of spending New Year’s Eve at a party hosted by our best friends.

Allow Freedom to Give Small Gifts

Because our friends are gift-giving people, we will often participate in the reciprocity and buy small gifts for our friends.

When giving gifts, we want to support small and minority-owned businesses. We also don’t want to contribute to a cluttered space which can also add stress. Because of this, we typically:

  • Buy consumable (food or drink) gifts from small and/or minority-owned businesses. Check out our 2021 Holiday Gift Guide focused on consumable gifts from Black-Owned Businesses for ideas!
  • Give people experiences. One year (pre-COVID), we paid for our full group of friends to do an escape room together. It was a ton of fun!

Decide and Prioritize What You Value

The best thing that you can do to reduce holiday stress is to be intentional. Decide what you value most and prioritize the ways you spend your time and money on those things.

Because we value both our financial freedom and building strong relationships, the decisions that we make on how we spend our time and money look different than the decisions that many people make.

It’s okay if what you value looks different than what I value. It’s also okay if what you value causes you to behave in ways that don’t always align with others’ expectations.

Let’s remember this holiday season to use our time and money as tools to help us live a joyful life that’s in alignment with our values.  

What will you be doing this holiday season to align your time and money with your values?

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