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Money stress can ruin your holidays. Here's how to conquer it.

By Hannah Erin Lang

The holiday season is prime time for worrying about money - and dredging up old financial fears. But there are ways to cope, experts say.

You're racking up your credit-card balance on plane tickets and stocking stuffers. Winter breaks and endless errands have left your schedule in shambles. You're heading home for the holidays - maybe during one of the busiest travel days of the year - and praying your dad doesn't bring up Bidenomics at the dinner table.

It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but it's not breaking news that the holiday season can also be one of the most stressful, particularly when it comes to our finances And, with the average American planning to spend about $875 on their holiday shopping this year, it can leave a serious dent in your wallet.

The holidays can also dredge up negative thoughts, fears and feelings we have about money, financial therapists told MarketWatch, spurring overspending and additional hand-wringing as the days tick down to New Year's Eve.

It doesn't have to be this way, they said: there are ways to confront the negative thoughts and "money scripts" we encounter at this time of year.

Here are some ways to get a grip on your sanity - and maybe even your budget - amid the holiday spending frenzy.

Step No. 1: Identify your money stories or 'money scripts'

It's important to remember that our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about money play an important role in shaping our financial behaviors, said Joyce Marter, LCPC, financial therapist and author of "The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life."

"Behaviors around money are very much connected to our financial health," Marter said.

Many of those psychological narratives about money can date back to childhood and are passed down by our families, said financial psychologist Brad Klontz.

To help people define those narratives, he developed the concept of "money scripts": deeply held, often unconscious beliefs about money that affect your financial behaviors through adulthood. (If you're curious, you can take a free quiz on Klontz's website to see what your money script is.)

Some people follow the money script of money vigilance. They tend to be overly cautious about their finances and may have a hard time spending. Others may exhibit traits of money avoidance, a belief that one will never have enough money, which can lead to either reckless spending or over-saving.

There's also money worship - a belief that money is the key to all happiness - which can lead to lavish gifts or racking up credit card balances, and money status, or equating your self worth with your net worth.

"They're like a script in a play that was written for you generations ago, and we tend to play them out," Klontz said. "They can last your entire lifetime unless they're challenged."

Smaller versions of money scripts, or other long-held perceptions about money, can also emerge during the holidays, Klontz said - for example, the narrative that we have to buy gifts for our friends and family.

"The assumption that 'I have to give people gifts to show them that I love them,' is partially true - it might be true with a particular friend," he said. "But broadly applied, it makes you broke."

Step No. 2: Tweak your money script

It could be helpful to view the holiday season as an opportunity to learn about what your money scripts are and where they came from, Klontz added, maybe by talking to your family about what their financial situation was growing up.

"What an excellent time for you to play your own anthropologist," he said. "Use it as an opportunity to learn."

And if you do discover you've internalized harmful or negative beliefs about money, you can work to reframe those narratives, Marter said.

Klontz noted that even a small change can make a difference: take the thought that "there is not enough money," for example, which could be a money script formed by growing up in a low-income household.

Even changing that thought to "there is not enough money right now," can be a powerful shift.

"It sounds so simple, but 'there's not enough money right now' is a call to action. 'There's not enough money' is a helpless feeling," Klontz said.

Step No. 3: Set boundaries

Setting boundaries - with yourself and others - is another helpful way to deal with the financial dread that may creep in near the end of the year, experts said.

That could be as simple as setting a budget for your holiday spending, said Brandon Goldstein, a New Jersey-based financial planner with Prudential Financial. If you've done much of your shopping without one, he suggested just starting with a written list of all the gifts you've bought so far and their prices.

"Just see where you are," he said. "Holiday gifts are an easy way to get off track financially."

Setting boundaries could also mean having conversations about gift giving with your loved ones. If you're trying to avoid overspending, or simply can't afford gifts at all, you could share more about your financial situation and discuss buying less expensive gifts or skipping them altogether, he said.

When it comes to family matters, that might mean talking before the holidays about the budget for gift-buying or asking ahead of time to steer clear of money or wealth-related topics in conversation during holiday gatherings, Marter said.

"If you're working on improving your financial health, you could have proactive conversations about that," she said. "Clarifying boundaries and expectations is really important for us to feel less stress and more psychologically safe."

Step No. 4: Give yourself some grace

Take a deep breath. It's a crazy time of year, Marter said, and we're all a little frazzled.

"Our inner critic can really pop up during this time of year," she said. "'I'm a failure, I'm bad with money, I'm broke': these are thoughts and belief systems that really impact how we behave and can become self-fulfilling prophecies."

If you find yourself facing down an old money script - worried that you've spent too much, or not enough - give yourself some grace, Klontz said. These perceptions often have truth and lived experience at the center of them, and it's important to honor that.

But the holiday season doesn't necessarily have to be a time of additional financial stress, he said. If it feels like it's become one, you can always make changes.

There are other ways to show appreciation for the people in your life without spending a lot of money on them, he said. He gave examples like making homemade cookies, writing a long and thoughtful note, or offering an act of service.

"Try to expand the possibilities in terms of 'How do I show people that I love and care for them?'" he said. "It doesn't have to be about money."

-Hannah Erin Lang

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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12-19-23 0949ET

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