Explore more

According to the massive amounts of emails I get from retailers, I should be shopping, shopping, shopping for the holidays now, now, now. I fall into the trap just like everyone else, I guess, wanting to buy just one more thing even though I have more emails in my inbox than I do money in the bank. Gift-giving guilt isn’t a new phenomenon (O. Henry wrote his famous story about it -- Gift of the Magi -- back in 1906), yet somehow we still agonize over our inability to please every person in our lives with bigger and better stuff.

This year, you don’t have to sabotage your wallet. It's time to talk back to guilt-inducing excuses like these:

But… so-and-so just told me she really, really wanted XYZ present, so I have to get it for her. First things first: If you’re on a budget, it’s a big no-no to ask someone what they want, says Glinda Bridgforth, financial expert and author of Girl, Get Your Credit Straight“Don’t leave yourself open like that,” she says. “Instead, ask for some suggestions. That way, at least you have options to choose from.” This is why it's crucial to determine your holiday budget in advance. "If you’re not in a position to buy something, you can say, 'I would love to buy that for you, but I’m working on a goal right now and buying that is not in my budget,'" Bridgforth says. 

But… I spent XYZ on so-and-so last year, so he will be expecting the same. "Not being able to afford what you gave last year is not neglecting a friend or partner -- it's a realistic evaluation," notes Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of Beat the Blues Before They Beat You"You can't give what you don't have." Come clean with your loved ones and discuss your financial limitations. Then, get creative with the gift-giving. "One technique that we use with couples is assigning 'caring' or 'pleasure' days where one partner will do pleasurable things for the other," says Leahy. "This could be an ongoing gift throughout the year."

But… Christmas Eve sales are just so good! “I don’t care how good the sale is,” says Bridgforth. “If you don’t have the money for it, it’s not a good sale.” Ask yourself this question: How much stuff do I need to buy? "We have to get back to understanding what’s a want and what’s a need," Bridgforth says. "And we have to be honest with ourselves when we do that." If the barrage of holiday catalogs and emails weakens your resolve to stick to your budget, call the companies and get off their catalog lists. Unsubscribe from the emails. Not seeing the seemingly low prices -- or the super-decked-out Christmas photos that get you pining for an expensive old-school celebration -- will reduce the temptation to overspend.

But… I have so many family members, I can’t possibly leave anyone out. If you have a large family, propose alternative gift-giving options. Maybe just buy for the kids this year, instead of the adults. Do the Secret Santa thing and draw names out of the hat, so each person only has to buy one gift. Or try the Yankee Swap, a hilarious game of chance: Everyone buys a nice-but-inexpensive gift (you can set a $10 price limit). Draw numbers out of a hat; player number one chooses a gift and unwraps it, showing everyone the prize. Player number two can either “steal” player one's gift or unwrap another one from the pile. And so on. Any player whose gift is stolen gets to choose again. Or here's a nice idea: Chip in as a family to sponsor someone in need. (Your local Salvation Army can help you find a family to support.)

But… I don’t want people to think I can’t afford to buy gifts. “Look at yourself and try to understand why you feel so anxious and so pressured to do this for this other person,” says Bridgforth. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I not enough? Why do I have to buy things to be worthy in the eyes of the other person?’” Your true friends and family should either know your situation or know that you're on a budget. After all, most people have financial goals (buying a new house, paying off debt, saving for a vacation or retirement). Why can't you? 

But… if I don’t buy something expensive, so-and-so will think I don’t love him. “Unfortunately, some people do equate love with the price tag of the gift,” says Leahy. The best way to approach this is to discuss what gifts mean -- and what they don’t mean. (You can also have that person read the dictionary definition of “materialism” out loud.) Convey your feelings to your loved one by focusing on the sentimentality of the gift, not the size or cost. For instance, instead of buying his wife jewelry for Christmas, a client of Leahy’s gave her a small stuffed toy bunny. And instead of being upset, the man's wife found the gift to be touching and meaningful: He'd bought it because she had told him how much she'd loved her pet rabbit as a child.