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3 ways to curb pre-holiday money stress

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There's not enough money in your account. Your kids want so many things. You always spend more than you have at this time of year. How can you possibly pay for it all?

Ah, the holidays. From Halloween to New Year's Eve, it's common to experience the financial freakout. Must you, though? No, say the experts. There are ways to keep the stress level low. Here's how to stay sane and within budget ... starting now.

1. Quell pre-shopping jitters
"My financial anxiety comes in waves," says Kansas City, Kan., resident Yosef Silver, founder of the kosher cooking website This American Bite. "I was feeling better about our income and expenses, and then we learned that we're having a third child."

Ways to curb pre-holiday money stress

Hanukkah is covered, says Silver, since family members contribute to the daily gifts, but his biggest fear is Black Friday, the traditional first day of winter holiday shopping, marked by crowds drawn to deep discounts. "You get sucked into a sense of the deal."

Silver is hardly alone with such concerns. A 2013 survey conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) found that 44 percent of U.S. adults feel a high level of financial stress. As seasonal expenses loom, these worries intensify.

"People are very afraid right now," says stress management psychotherapist Steve Rosenberg of Elkins Park, Pa. After being in practice for 33 years, he recognizes the signs of pre-holiday worries. "Halloween, Thanksgiving and beyond, everyone is looking at the price."

Rosenberg's primary message to worriers: stop anticipating negativity. Dark projections will ruin the unique pleasurable experiences the season can offer.

Grave statistics about the country's recession and unemployment rates can also heighten tension, so consider a temporary broadcasting blackout. "Don't listen to the news," advises Rosenberg. "The media definitely is reporting accurately what is happening with the economy, but people start to personalize it." Instead, focus on the positive things in your life and be realistic with your own circumstances. Question whether you really are in a bad financial place or are anticipating unnecessary negativity.

If funds are truly tight and extra holiday costs will impact essential bills, panicking is expected. It's also a sign, though, that you need to change your mindset, says Ramani Durvasula ("Dr. Ramani") a Los Angeles clinical psychologist and co-host of the Oxygen Network show "My Shopping Addiction."

"It's easy to get caught in the frenzy and get distressed," says  Durvasula. If you're having a tough financial year, you may "experience a drop in self-esteem, then overspend, become exhausted and perhaps even downright depressed."

Worse, the AICPA survey found that money worries can cause illness, resulting in even higher costs as you take time off work to recuperate or pay for medical bills.

Therefore, take relaxing and reducing spending seriously. The key, says  Durvasula, is to remember that most of the upcoming holidays are about gratitude, not obligation. Easier said than done, perhaps, but a soothing truism.

2. Smooth financial fears with a plan
If you're certain that you'll be increasing spending soon, the best way to offset the fear of overdoing it is to determine how much you can and want to part with far in advance. Like, immediately. 

"Start now in building out your holiday timeline of planned activities and expenditures that may fall outside of the daily norm," says Sarah Ely, vice president of communications at MasterCard Worldwide. "Know what you can comfortably spend for all your holiday needs and keep track of your purchases as you move through the season." 

Take 30 seconds right now to recall how stressed out you were this time last year. Remember how crummy it felt to rip open the credit card bills in January?

-- Kristen Hagopian
Author, "Brilliant Frual Living"

Chances are you'll soon be swiping plastic at lightning speed, so before ramping it up, make sure you benefit from the transactions. This way you'll gain control, which can banish apprehension. Ely suggests:

  • Reading the inserts or email updates from your credit or debit card issuer. "Oftentimes during the holidays, they'll send along special savings opportunities for spending at certain stores or retailers."
  • Racking up additional rewards card points. "Many issuers provide cash-back increases or bonuses for spending within certain categories, such as retail, electronics or for simply shopping online."
  • Cashing in your earnings. "As you build your holiday gift list, look for opportunities to leverage rewards points you've built up to help make those purchases."
  • Finding out which of your favorite retailers offer the best card deals. "Retailers often provide exclusive holiday sales and increased savings for cardholders who have a store credit card."

To feel secure while charging, the balances ought to be payable in a month or two. If you fear they won't be, you can use those nerves effectively, says Kristen Hagopian, a Philadelphia-based author of "Brilliant Frugal Living" and frequent radio talk show host.

"Take 30 seconds right now to recall how stressed out you were this time last year," says Hagopian. "Remember how crummy it felt to rip open the credit card bills in January?" That bitter memory should bring your budget back down to reality.

Tranquility comes with acceptance of your economic situation, so whether your maximum holiday budget totals $10 or $1,000, respect your personal boundaries. It's unlikely that your loved ones want you to sacrifice for an extravagant meal or pricey bauble.

There is no shame in simplicity and, says Hagopian, you're usually better off focusing on the inexpensive things that create memories, not liabilities. "Think back to the fabulous food you enjoyed as a kid. Was it a special cookie recipe? Candy? Chocolate? Recreate it and give it out freely to everyone and anyone who means the most to you. That is a gift they'll remember."

As for creating your spending plan, don't delay. The earlier you get it done, the happier you'll be, says Ramani. "Procrastination contributes to anxiety and poor decision making. If you have some leisure time now -- and you have set your budget and list -- then doing this gradually can make it less frenetic."

3. Keep stress away while shopping
Ready to hit the costume superstore, the supermarket for the big Thanksgiving spread or the mall for just about everything else? Better shape up. 

"Take good care of you," says Durvasula. "Exercise, get enough sleep, eat well. These things may help you be more resilient in the face of the holiday shopping stressors." Dress comfortably, wear walking shoes and ditch the heavy purse. When your body feels good and relaxed, so too will your attitude.

Tech tools can help, too. Though Silver still plans to seek Black Friday's bargains, he's started to rely on websites such as lifehacker.com to identify the best deals throughout the year. "I found out that January is the best time to buy a TV," says Silver, who will now wait for that particular purchase. He'll also keep to his spending guidelines with the app Evernote, which syncs his predetermined shopping notes to all his computers and electronic devices. "I put my shopping list on my phone, so it's in my hands and I keep checking it. I stick to it."

Of course, even with the best of intentions and rigorous preparation, hyperventilating in the middle of the mall is still possible. Your throat may constrict, heart race and a headache emerge. At that point, stop and breathe deeply, says Rosenberg.

"Take a deep breath though your nostrils, hold it to capacity, then let go, counting, 'five, four, three, two, one.'" says Rosenberg. "Take another second and do the same thing, then a third time. Then breathe normally and think the word 'clear.' Do this until your mind really is clear. It's a tried-and-true technique and only takes a minute."

Once you feel better, continue to take it easy. "Don't marathon shop," says Durvasula. "The longer you are in the store, the more your decision making skills and willpower fade. Give yourself not only a money budget but a time budget." Her rule is two hours, then take off.

Ultimately, if you want a stress-free holiday season, it's there for the taking. Turn your attention to what's important, says Hagopian: "Family, friends and carbs. Then, if you're anything like me, the only reason you'll have to dust off your panic button in January is if you make the critical error of stepping on your bathroom scale."

See related: 7 free ways to reduce the stress caused by money, finances, 18 ways to get gift cards for less

Published: October 28, 2013



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