How to Manage Holiday Expectations—Without Guilt!

Are you overspending in your quest for the “perfect” holiday? Use these tips to get your family back to the heart of the holiday season.

Mother and young son wearing Santa hats and decorating cookies

by NEA Member Benefits


The holidays seem to get more expensive and more stressful every year. Gift spending was down slightly in 2019 over 2018 spending, according to American Research Group, Inc., and American shoppers planned to spend an average $976 for the 2019 holidays.

Getting caught up in the holiday whirlwind can leave us overscheduled, overtired and overspent.

But the holidays don’t have to break the bank or leave you too worn out to enjoy this special time of year. These tips can help you break the myth of a “perfect” holiday experience, rein in spending and set new boundaries—without feeling guilty!

Re-evaluate your holiday traditions

Are you doing things that really matter to you? Or are you going through the motions?

Ask yourself if there are simpler ways to achieve your goals, suggests Jen Butler, M.Ed., a SMaRT (Stress Management and Resiliency Training) coach and CEO and founder of JB Partners, LLC, in Phoenix, Arizona. Women, who are typically the holiday planners, tend to set unrealistic expectations for themselves—but studies show families would rather just keep it simple.

Hold a family meeting

As early as possible, get the family together to discuss holiday plans. Talk about your family’s current holiday traditions. Ask everyone to choose a single, special favorite activity and focus on those this year. Try to find new (and less costly) ways to continue treasured activities. Or share ideas to create new family holiday traditions that you can carry forward for years to come.

Plan ahead to spend less

Create a realistic holiday budget. It’s never too early or too late! Many people talk about “sticking to the budget”—but they don’t actually have a budget, says consumer finance expert Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network.

Calculate how much you can and want to spend, and write it down. Include everything from family gifts to year-end tips for service providers to travel costs. Compare your total to a list of everything you anticipate spending on this holiday season. Be prepared to modify if you find your total is too high.

Need help? Try online printables like’s Holiday Shopping Checklist and the Holiday Budget Worksheet, recommended by Katie Ross, Education & Development Manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling, Inc. (ACCC), a national financial education nonprofit group. Or use pen and paper, an Excel spreadsheet or whatever works for you. What’s important is finding a method that you will use!

Establish gift boundaries

Discuss ways to cut back on the number and cost of gifts. For example, you could set a dollar limit for each gift or each person. Or limit gift giving to children, closest relatives, oldest and dearest friends and so on.

Inform extended family and gift-exchange friends of your new plan as soon as possible to give them time to adjust their expectations and modify before they splurge on gifts or plan events. (They may be as happy as you are to jump off the ever-escalating gift effort and expense merry-go-round!) If they’ve already bought gifts and paid more than your limit, ask them to return or exchange for something they can use or donate it. Don’t be guilt-tripped into spending more that you’re able to.

What if grandparents insist on indulging your children despite your wishes? Ask if they could apply any above-limit money to education needs such as clothes and school expenses or tickets to events and experiences that can be enjoyed throughout the year.

Try gift alternatives

Choose gifts that show caring, not cost. “Most people would prefer a thoughtful gift over a monetary gift,” says Butler.

Ross agrees. “People enjoy a thoughtful homemade gift because it’s from the heart,” she says. “If you specialize in jewelry making, sewing or baking, you should showcase those skills by using them as gifts.”

Try a having a gift grab bag instead of exchanging individual presents. Consider group or family gifts. Make a family donation to charity.

Give time and shared experiences instead of purchased presents, suggests Gallegos. Shovel a neighbor’s snow. Take care of his yard. Offer babysitting services. Gather friends or family together for an old-fashioned caroling party.

Have holiday movie nights. Check your public library for movies you can borrow for free. Shop thrift stores and charity outlets for very low cost or free movies.

Simplify decorations

Do you really need to decorate the whole house? Start with the room that matters most. Then add one room at a time, Butler suggests. Skip buying new decorations this year. Find used ones at thrift stores, make your own or reuse old ones. You don’t have to spend a lot to have a festive home.

Dial down dining

Love hosting holiday dinners but not the work and cost? Simplify! Fancy meals may look great on TV and the covers of magazines, Butler says, but “typically kids would prefer chicken fingers, mac and cheese, pizza or cereal for dinner.”

For meals with others: Have a potluck to share the expense. Limit your menu to a few simple, less expensive dishes instead of a lavish spread. Plan menus early so you can buy foods on your list when they go on sale. Don’t prepare more than you need. “Cooking enough to feed an army will only result in waste if your ‘crowd’ is more like a handful,” says Gallegos.

Rethink gift wrap

Change gift wrapping from chore to a shared family fun project. Use recycled comics pages, old maps, bus schedules or other novelty items instead of traditional wrapping paper. Gallegos suggests wrapping kitchen items in a tea towel or rolling bath and bed linens in a pretty sheet or shower curtain.

Cut holiday card costs

Create unique homemade greeting cards as a family project. Enlist computer-savvy kids to help create and print your own cards, Gallegos suggests. For an even simpler approach, cut holiday greeting card costs by sending electronic cards, many of which are free, Gallegos says.

Allow yourself to say goodbye to guilt!

Remember the holidays are about spending time with family and friends, not how much money you spend. There’s no need to feel apologetic when you and your family decide to not to go into debt. Simplify, modify and enjoy this special time with your loved ones.

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