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How to Reduce Holiday Spending and Love the Season More

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Before online shopping was a thing — and before we had kids — my husband and I took care of our Christmas shopping in one day. We’d pick a Saturday in December and drive to a local design district, a beautiful street lined with quirky stores selling everything from outdoor apparel to home decor.

Taking our time, we’d stroll in and out of the shops, holding up our finds:

“A fleece jacket for your dad?” I’d ask.

“No, he has one like that,” my husband would reply. “What about this serving tray for your mom?”

When we got tired, we’d stop for lunch or coffee, but we wouldn’t leave until we crossed off everyone on the list. It was a day I looked forward to, a delightful tradition.

Last year, I didn’t even see most of the presents I purchased.

Gifts for nieces and nephews were purchased, wrapped, and shipped from online. There was no strolling, no good-natured arguing, no latte breaks. The whole thing felt transactional, the fulfilling of an obligation.

How to Reduce Holiday Spending and Love the Season More

Holiday Spending Through the Eyes of Children

This year, in the spirit of checking off my to-do list as soon as possible, right before Thanksgiving I asked my kids what they wanted for Christmas.

“Legos,” my nine-year-old son said from within the dishwasher box, his favorite new hideout.

“Clothes,” said my twelve-year-old daughter, not looking up from her book.

Their indifference doesn’t mean they don’t care about the holidays, because as soon as Thanksgiving was over they began pestering me about the Christmas decorations.

“I can’t wait to see our little train!” my son said about a toy train we received as a gift last year.

“Do you think the Christmas house will be decorated this year?” my daughter asked about a nearby house decorated with more than 18,000 lights and crowded with stuffed animals and movable figures.

I’m not sure when this happened, and maybe it’s always been true, but I recently realized my kids care more about the experiences and traditions of the holidays than the presents. This understanding caused me to shift my focus about holiday spending.

Instead of fretting over finding the perfect — and perfect amount of — presents, I have been freed to work on enjoying the holiday experiences together with my kids. More parades and Christmas carols, less frantic trips to Target or hours on Amazon.

How to Reduce Holiday Spending and Love the Season More

How to Reduce Holiday Spending and Love the Season More

The holidays don’t have to be a time of tension and stress, especially when you focus on what truly brings you joy. Here are three ways to stay healthy and happy through the holidays, with more joy and less stress around holiday spending.

1. Participate in traditions you enjoy, ditch the rest.

Last year, I didn’t send out holiday cards, and I won’t this year, either. For years, I thought ordering, addressing, and mailing cards was a non-negotiable part of the holidays. Then last year — I just didn’t send any.

I’m connected with almost everyone on my Christmas card list through social media, and I had been going through the holiday-card motions out of a sense of obligation, spending money on something that would be recycled within a month.

You may enjoy the holiday card process — if so, it’s money well spent. To get the most out of the experience, be intentional about the process. Spend time picking out a favorite photo, get a family member to participate in applying postage, and think about the pleasure your friends and family will feel getting the card in the mail.

If you find it an expensive annoyance, consider letting it fall off the to-do list.

A California-style holiday tradition my family cherishes is walking to our local nursery with our beach wagon, picking out a tree together, then walking home with the tree strapped to the spot we normally place beach chairs and surfboards. With Christmas music in the background, we pull out the ornaments, exclaiming over our favorites. Like the cards, the tree is expensive and will ultimately end up in the trash, but it’s a yearly experience we participate in as a family — one I would hate to abandon.

This year, make an effort to keep the traditions you love, and give yourself permission to let go of the rest.

How to Reduce Holiday Spending and Love the Season More

2. Spend more time than money.

We spend hours shopping for gifts, when what the recipient really wants is our time. This is especially true for children. Many of us feel a need to provide our kids with a perfect Christmas, and that means presents piled everywhere. I’m not sure why we do this, because have you ever paid attention to kids working their way through a mountain of presents? Their eyes glaze over after the first ten gifts, the excitement turning into a chore.

When buying presents, think about what is behind the impulse to get bigger, more elaborate, and more expensive presents. Is it to assuage guilt? To keep up with the Joneses, or at least what you think the Joneses are doing?

When you are tempted to spend too much on a gift for a friend or loved one, take a minute to think about your favorite memory of that person. Does it involve a present they gave you, or does it involve time you spent together?

  • Instead of buying your friends something at the mall, consider hosting a dinner party or planning a night out.
  • Is there a list of things your child is always asking to go do? Plan a day doing all of your kid’s favorite activities.
  • Take your mom out to tea, plan a day being tourists in your home town with your significant other, and play tennis with your sister.

Show love, be generous, but remember these two things have nothing to do with money.

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3. Keep your healthy habits.

It all starts on Thanksgiving. You eat too much pie, thinking Thanksgiving only comes around once a year. Then a week later, the holiday cookies start appearing. Then it’s the back-to-back parties. At some point, you throw your hands up and decide to eat whatever comes your way, thinking you’ll get back on track in January.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s possible to enjoy the holidays and maintain your healthy habits. Keeping your nutrition and diet in check will actually improve your holidays, giving you the energy you need to enjoy the festivities.

The secret to staying on track is to be strategic about indulging:

  • If dessert is your favorite, hold back on the appetizers and alcohol, and really enjoy the Christmas cookies.
  • Make it a rule you won’t eat any of the treats that appear in the office. (Most of them aren’t very good, anyway.)
  • Cook meals at home as much as you can, and don’t let your exercise routine slip.
  • Finally, focus on traditions that don’t involve food: ice skating, holiday music and movies, and walks to admire the neighborhood decorations.

Above all, don’t eat something simply because it’s the holidays, and be sure to savor the treats you truly enjoy.

Spend Less and Love More

The key to enjoying the holidays is figuring out what brings joy to you and your loved ones, and putting your energy there. Participate wholeheartedly in the traditions you love, spend more time than money, and don’t abandon the healthy habits you’ve worked so hard to establish.

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Hilary Achauer
Hilary Achauer is a freelance health and fitness writer. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Greatist, Racked, Men's Health, Today's Parent, San Diego Magazine, and the CrossFit Journal.

A former children's books editor, Hilary once competed as an amateur boxer, but now spends her free time in a CrossFit gym or surfing. Find out more about her at