Have holidays past left you feeling drained and disappointed—in spite of your best intentions for a Norman Rockwell-esque celebration with your family? You're not alone. In fact, say husband and wife coauthors David and Andrea Reiser, you're part of the (unfortunate) norm. Not to worry—they provide some simple steps that your family can follow to get back the holiday you've always wanted and make your "merry" more meaningful this year.
Read on for the Reisers' tried-and-true holiday advice:
Budget in advance. Admit it: You're guilty of spending twice what you should have on your mother's gift to make up for the fact that you didn't visit earlier in the year. Or grudgingly shelling out way more than you anticipated for the large number of "obligatory" gifts on a list that seems to grow with each passing year. Perhaps, like millions of other consumers, you've succumbed to the gorgeous packaging, clever marketing, and can't-pass-them-up deals that stores have to offer this time of year.
Before you head out to do your shopping, know what the hard numbers look like, and map out in advance what sort of cash reserve you'll have to dip into. A great way to keep yourself accountable is to put your budgeted Christmas cash on a pre-paid card. You'll watch your budget more carefully and when the money is gone—it's gone. You'll be less tempted to add just one more gift to the pile because of a super sale. If you don't think you have the strength (or willpower) to go it alone, the Reisers suggest the buddy system! Have a budget-conscious friend or thrifty family member be your accountability partner. Having someone else in the know when it comes to your budget and holiday spending will make you that much more accountable and less likely to go spend-crazy.
Be honest about any financial changes. If you have to downsize your holiday expenses, it's better that you—and your family and friends—know it now instead of when the credit card bills start rolling in. There's no shame in readjusting the scope of your gifts in order to avoid a sackful of debt. If your loved ones truly care about you, that's the last thing they'll want! And they might be relieved to know that breaking the bank is not this year's expectation.
Don't be afraid to ask your neighbor for more than a cup of sugar. Say you're planning on hosting a gathering at your home for your thirty closest friends...but you don't have a punch bowl, enough serving platters, or a good variety of holiday music CDs. The temptation is to rush out and buy these items, but wait—is there anyone from whom you could borrow them instead? You can return the favor at your neighbor's New Year's Eve bash, and your wallet will thank you.
Think outside the gift box to all the "other" holiday expenses. If you've sat down with your own personal version of Santa's list and a copy of your latest bank statement, pat yourself on the back for a job responsibly done. But don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet—there are other expenses to think about too! And when it comes to the holidays, if you aren't careful, some of the more costly aspects of the season will sneak up on you and your wallet—and will leave you paying for it (literally!) in January. Whether you're feeding your family, bringing a dish to the office potluck, or hosting an event, grocery bills can add up at an alarming rate this time of year. Don't forget about the little "extras" like the holiday tip for your hair stylist and mail carrier or the gifts for the kids' soccer coach or piano teacher. And those twinkling Christmas lights give your power bill a boost—so think ahead for the next month's budget. Try to anticipate what you'll need to spend—down to the tiniest of details—and plan accordingly.
Be realistic. Unless you actually have Santa's magical ability to make it around the world in one night, chances are you aren't going to make it to every party, event, play, performance, and gathering to which you're invited. Instead of overcommitting yourself and your family, sit down together before the madness starts, make out a list of priorities, and then schedule accordingly. Do this on a daily basis as well as on a weekly and monthly one!
Start the season early. Most people instinctively try to plan holiday events as close to "the day" as possible. That's understandable...but it results in a week-long period of crammed schedules and stressed people. If you start now, you can hold events and make your visits in the first half of December...and you'll probably be able to deck the halls with your friends' and family's thanks!
Aim a bit lower than absolute perfection. If you've ever watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, you know how well Clark Griswold's attempt to have the perfect family holiday turned out. It's funny onscreen, but not so much in real life. Remember that meals are really about company more than food, for example, and that the annual family get-together is more about fellowship and fun than about how impressive your decorations are. With this attitude, you'll make more memories you'll actually want to revisit, and people will enjoy being around you.
Add an hour. If you think you'll be at the company party until 9:30, add an hour. If you think you'll be at Grandma's until lunchtime, add an hour. Everything always takes longer than you think it will—that's why you're rushing around town like a crazy person, trying to hold your last nerve together for just a little longer every day for a month. Save yourself the stress...and if, by some holiday miracle you do stick to your original schedule, you'll treasure those extra hours.
Reserve some private time. When you're designing your doable holiday schedule, don't forget to leave enough free space for family time and for "you" time. If you're not careful, you might find yourself forgoing the yearly cookie-baking party with your kids and wrapping gifts at 3:00 a.m.
Give them a memorable experience. Instead of showering your kids with a pile of this year's "it" clothes, toys, and electronics (which, let's face it, will probably be collecting dust by the end of the school year), give your kids the gift of a meaningful experience. Chances are, your family will remember an event that reinforces values and makes them feel special. (Note to Editor: See attached tipsheet.)
Don't overstimulate them. These days, the typical kid has more than just visions of sugarplums dancing in his head. He's thinking about toys, movies, video games, vacations, and food...and that's just for starters. Yes, the holidays are an extravaganza for all five senses, but by regulating what and how much your children receive and do, you'll be doing them a favor. Their attention will be more focused, and they'll be more likely to understand and remember special moments.
Follow a tradition. It's amazing how much kids value and remember family traditions. Unlike anything else, they're a source of fun, they strengthen family bonds, and they form a meaningful link to the past. Whether you're baking cookies, watching a favorite holiday movie, or piling into the car to look at neighborhood lights, don't underestimate the value of time spent together, enjoying each other's company.