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Psychologist | Speaker | Media Expert | Workplace Consultant | Researcher

Tips for managing holiday debt by Dr. Joti Samra, host, OWN’s 'Million Dollar Neighbourhood'

1. Identify your beliefs, assumptions and expectations around the holidays: and challenge them.


Start by articulating your beliefs and assumptions around the holiday season.  Be honest with yourself.  Do you think you have to buy your family or friends expensive gifts for them to know how much you love them?  Do you worry your loved ones will be disappointed if they don’t receive expensive gifts?  Articulate the thoughts that compel you to overspend during the holidays and then challenge those thoughts.  Ask yourself are those thoughts accurate? Are they valid?  Check with your loved ones and ask them if they feel or expect what you may be assuming they do.


2.  Create a holiday spending budget.


It is amazing how often people don’t do the obvious – speak openly about how much they are going to – and more importantly can afford to – spend during the holidays.  Often we get caught up in assumptions or perceived expectations of what we think others want or expect, and then end up overspending on unneeded and unnecessary items.  So talk openly about this; speak to your loved ones about what you would each like to do, and set (and stick to) a budget.  Be realistic in this and keep in mind, Christmas is ultimately just another day.


3. Make a concrete action plan.  Write it down and stick to it.


Once you have set your budget for holiday spending, write it down and keep it somewhere you can regularly see.  Keep a running tally of how much you are spending.  Include everything (gifts, cards, holiday decorations, food).  Make a list of what you are going to buy and pay by cash or debit.


4. Be creative in planning holiday activities.


Generate fun, low-cost activities you can do with your family and friends.  The main overarching aim of the holidays is to spend time together.  Make a special dinner at home; turn off all technology (cell phones, TVs, computers) and just focus on each other; go for long walks; spend time playing board games or watching movies.  Do something during the holidays you might not do on other days.  The holidays can be meaningful and highly memorable in the absence of extravagant gifts.


5.  Give low or no-cost gifts.


Make a pact to spend no or little money on gifts.  If you have a talent, use it!  Write a love letter to your partner (handwritten, not text or email).  Write a poem or a song.  Offer a service to your loved ones (childcare, a home-cooked meal, music lessons if you are musically talented, etc.).


6.  Start a new family tradition.


Rather than giving gifts to each other, start a new family tradition.  Volunteer at a local food bank or adopt a family in need and provide them with food and essentials for the holidays (a turkey dinner, gifts for children, winter coats).


7.  Remember: love is not defined or communicated by material goods.


In this day and age of consumerism it is easy to get caught up and feel the pressure of having to “buy” something as a symbol of  our love.  Keep in mind that how much you love, care for and adore another is not related to what you buy them!  Our love is communicated by making someone feel special and important to you: so do something during the holidays that communicates this to your loved ones.


8. If you are in over your head, seek help.


When debt feels out of control, it’s natural to want to withdraw and isolate.  Many people experience shame about sharing their financial problems with family or friends.  Realize that millions of Canadians are in debt, and that sharing your challenges with someone you trust can reduce the burden.


9.  Confront your money difficulties.


If you are in debt, the urge is to avoid or procrastinate thinking about your financial difficulties (e.g., not opening bills, avoiding thinking about the debt, ignoring calls from collection agents).  this can lead many people to get into a vicious cycle of debt.  Take control by directly confronting your difficulties.  Seeking the assistance of a debt counsellor can help break down into manageable steps what may feel like an impossible situation to get out of.


10.  Think about money as being a means to end.  Articulate your financial goals and dreams, and establish specific and actionable goals.


In and of itself, money means nothing. This may sound like an obvious statement, but regularly remind yourself that money is just a means to an end. Identify what that end is for you. What are your short and long-term financial goals? What short and long-term dreams do you have? Be specific about what you want to achieve, and write those things down. Research demonstrates that when we write our dreams down, we are much more likely to follow through on achieving them. Then establish specific and actionable goals.  For example, saying you “want to save more” is a general and non-actionable goal. Saying you “want to save an extra $100 per month” is a specific and clear goal. Then identify what actions you will take to ensure this happens. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to be successful.


11.  Identify the emotion states that surround money for you.


Money is an emotionally  charged topic! Many of us have a number of strong emotions that surround money and finances – this can include fear (e.g., about having enough to survive), guilt or shame (e.g., if you have made poor financial decisions in the past), anger (e.g., at partner’s spending habits) or low self-esteem/confidence (if you lack strong skills in managing finances). The emotional reactions we have surrounding money often come from our family of origin, can be strongly ingrained, and can interfere with our ability to take next steps with respect to improving our financial health. Pay attention to the emotions (and associated thoughts) that come up for you. Try to identify the source of those emotions, and work to problem-solve those causes.


12.  Confront your financial challenges head on.


When we are faced with worry or stress about anything in our life – including finances – we have a strongly ingrained natural tendency to want to avoid and procrastinate on addressing those issues. Although avoidance helps us in the short-term, avoidance is an unhelpful long-term strategy in that our worry and anxiety grows over time. Pay attention to times that your urge to avoid surfaces, and be proactive in taking steps to expose yourself to things and situations that increase anxiety (e.g., opening bills, doing taxes, making an appointment with a financial advisor).


13.  Manage your stress!


Financial difficulties are, not uncommonly, a tangible result of other stressors in our life, including relationship stressors. Identify the source of stressors in your life and work to proactively target and problem-solve those stressors, as doing so can have an overall significant positive impact on your financial health.


14.  Never shop as a way to improve your mood.


Many people, particularly women, have a tendency to want to shop when mood is low, sad, depressed, anxious, or even angry. Although this can lead to a temporary lift in mood, often our decision-making is poor when we are experiencing negative emotions, and we often make decisions we later regret. Work to regulate other negative emotions and avoid impulse-shopping.  Seek treatment for underlying mood issues if these have been unaddressed.


15.  Identify your financial “needs” and differentiate those from your financial “wants”.


Most people are guilty of spending money on unnecessary things that they don’t need. Impulse-shopping, shopping when mood is low, and a desire to “keep up with the Jones’” are all contributing factors. Be honest with yourself about your financial needs (the “must-have’s”) and separate those out from your financial wants (the unnecessary, “nice-to-have’s”). If you are in a challenging financial situation, be mindful of how much is being expended on the wants, and actively work to reducing those expenses.


16.  Speak openly with your partner about you respective money values.


Finances can often be the source of considerable conflict between couples. Recognize that almost every couple struggles with financial issues, and that money is one of the biggest sources of relationship stress (in addition to sex). Being stuck in a cycle where you repeatedly fight about the bills and over your partner’s spending  (or saving) habits often gets nowhere. It is much more productive to focus discussions on understanding each other’s underlying money values. Try to understand how you each view money. What do you each want money to help you attain and achieve? What are the emotional associations each of you have? How have each of you been impacted by your respective family’s views on money? Was money spoken about openly or was there shame associated with talking about money? Taking a non-judgmental, empathic approach to understanding your partner’s money values can be a highly effective strategy to working to solve financial-related conflicts.


17.  Appreciate that you and your partner may have different ‘money personalities’.  Embrace these differences, and build off each others’ strengths.


Identify your respective approaches to money. Who is a “saver”? A “spender”? Who has strengths with respect to establishing and managing a family budget? Then draw off these strengths! The “saver” can be a good person to help generate creative strategies when your family is under financial stress.  The “spender” can be the one who can help ensure that fun is scheduled into your family life!


18.  Dedicate regular, scheduled times to discuss money with your partner.


Ensure that you and your partner make time for dedicated conversations about money. Use this time to revisit and revise individual and family goals, including your individual and collective short and long-term dreams. Review investments, household budgets, outstanding bills and debts, and establish agreed-upon budgets for special occasions and holidays.


19.  Talk openly with your kids about money.


Our financial values, attitudes, habits and behaviours are established well before we ever have our own disposable income: they are shaped early in our childhood. Often adults lack financial acumen not because they are not smart enough, but because they were never taught! Speak openly with your kids about money. Teach them the value of a dollar by ascribing chores and errands that they receive compensation for, talk to them about budgeting, and involve them in family financial decisions.


20.  Channel your emotional energy into the things you can change, and work toward acceptance of the things you cannot.


No matter how hard we wish, will, or think it: we simply cannot change the past financial decisions we have made. Take a stance of radical acceptance of past decisions, mistakes and failures. Then focus your energy on what you can control moving forward. All too often we get caught in ruminating about the past, and this does nothing other than increase our stress and worry, and interferes with our ability to put energy into changing our future.


21.  Find a financial workout partner!


When it comes to our physical health, we have workout partners for a reason: they help us stay accountable, on track with our program, and motivate us when our urge is to avoid or procrastinate. Finding a financial workout partner can serve the same goal! Find a friend, family member, or neighbour that can serve as a buddy. Remember – almost everyone struggles with some aspect of their financial health, and all of us can benefit from having the support of someone who is also trying to make changes in their financial life.


22.  Our financial health is intimately connected to our psychological and physical health.


Finances – and all of the related worries, anxieties and stressors that come along with being in a less than ideal financial situation – take a tremendous impact on our psychological and physical health.  Be mindful that improving your financial attitudes and behaviours will have an overall positive impact on your psychological and physical health.


23.  Remember: changing your financial behaviours is a process and a journey, and slow and steady wins the race.


Once you make up your mind to tackle your financial situation head-on, it can be tempting to try to make immediate drastic changes. Remind yourself that there is no rush to the finish line, and that the best thing you can do is establish realistic and specific goals that are sustainable over time. From a psychological perspective, you are much more likely to succeed if you establish goals that you can stick to for the long haul.




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