• Paul Gordon & Janine Robertson

The foolproof way to get through Christmas with your finances intact

I remember Christmas from my childhood as a time for family water fights, too much food, terrible jokes from Christmas crackers and little knitted stockings that my Nanna made and hung on the tree. (The water fights ended the year that my Uncle brought the garden hose inside the house.)

My Mum probably remembers these same events as being somewhat stressful. She was the one producing food, buying gifts for a large family and making sure everyone was looked after, with a change of clothes ready when we were wet and cold. Mum would have been the one doing a whole lot of planning in the weeks or months leading up – not to mention managing the financial pressure.

Christmas can be a time of habit and tradition, and we all have different perceptions and memories of the same events. It can bring a whole lot of emotion and family turbulence to the table. It can encourage us to show off or keep up. It can be something that seems to happen by default. My large family made Christmas fun and I have many fond memories.

Signs of impending financial hangover

I have read a couple of articles this week about the changing Christmas & holiday vibe in 2019 – apparently we are spending less, saying no to gifts and also to parties. Some articles point to the environmental impacts of unwanted gifts and wasted food, some to financial, physical and emotional stress, and others note the forgettable/difficult/tiresome family moments that can come with Christmas events. I have also read articles about the success of Black Friday sales - that Australians are embracing this US tradition of post-thanksgiving deals – with predictions that we would spend almost $3 billion over the weekend. These articles often come with the associated commentary around the economic climate - consumer confidence, interest rates, house prices and tax rates. But all that aside - whether you're choosing to downgrade the Christmas events, are keenly searching for the perfect gift or are somewhere in between - Christmas is a time of year that can come with a big (financial) hangover and a whole lot of pressure. Our memories and the way we perceive things over time has an enormous influence over the Christmas season.

There are plenty of websites that will help you to find ‘100 ways to save money at Christmas’ – from making gifts to using loyalty points or choosing a stay-cation – and many of them are completely valid, even helpful. However, Christmas can pull at the heartstrings for many of us. Not wanting to upset Grandma, creating family memories and even just doing it for the kids are all completely valid reasons for joining in and riding the wave that is Christmas.

The real value of Christmas

If you did set a Christmas budget, a myriad of reasons help us overspend – we forget someone, that perfect present was more than expected, or the budget was just unrealistic in the first place. Budgets are notoriously hard to stick to - not only at Christmas. Suncorp did a survey in September and identified that we spend $272 billion a year on food in Australia but that most of us fail to either budget for, or, stick to, our intentions for this key household expense. This is not new news. No matter the intent of your budget, setting a limit and sticking to it is hard, and Christmas brings many additional challenges.

When we talk about our spenditude at Christmas time, we need to consider all the underlying values, memories and intentions even more. It’s easier than any other time of year to get caught in the need to spend. With reduced awareness of our financial situation, thanks to our almost cash-less ways of spending, building awareness at Christmas is critical to survival! End-of-year exhaustion combined with that mountain of tasks/gifts/cooking we need to climb to get to these Christmas events can lead to anxiety and over spending. Sometimes we throw money at the problem. Sometimes the emotion and time pressure impacts us. Sometimes the kids demands seem more easily dealt with by giving in than by fighting or explaining.

So, is there a better way to assess if you really need to buy that shiny new item or gift, and to come through Christmas with your finances intact?

1. Sleep

Links between sleep and mood, good decision making and overall health are clear. Yet at Christmas, with additional stress, we often add booze and late nights to the equation and miss out on valuable sleep. Do what you can to ensure good sleep at this time of year. It may help you cope with stressful situations, make better choices and reduce the spending.

2. Have a break

Before you make that purchase, either online or in store, walk away and have a coffee/water/etc. Take a moment and assess the real need. Put down the phone (particularly late at night - see above re sleep) and go get a drink.

3. Consider your shopping partners

Bring awareness to the people around you - who always talks you in to spending more, who treats shopping like a sport, who has a keen eye for a bargain? Choose wisely.

4. Instinct and good intention

Re-assess the goal. Why are you buying? Is it instinct or good intention? Listen to yourself and know your underlying reasons.

5. Memories

Take a moment to consider what you are trying to re-create or avoid. The voice inside your head has power.

6. Finally

There is a significant volume of research around the impact of objects vs the impact of experience. Happiness gained from objects (materialism) brings less pleasure than happiness gained from experiences (experientialism). What do I remember about Christmas in my childhood? Water fights, Nanna taking a whole lot of time to knit stockings (which I still have), playing with cousins, family meals and jokes. I have no idea what plastic toy was given to me by a well-intentioned relative or even by my own parents.

Financial position, family obligation or your spender/gift-giving tendencies aside. Remember that it is not the gift that we remember, but the experience surrounding it. One thing is for sure, with the drought not letting up, there won’t be a water fight at our place for Christmas this year. Charades anyone?

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