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Ask This Question to Stay on Track Financially This Christmas

What’s the best way to approach the Christmas season if you want to ensure you come out the other side without doing damage to your finances yet still having the kind of experiences you enjoy?

Here are a few of the most popular suggestions:

1. Create a budget so you don’t overspend.

This is prudent, but it won’t necessarily save you money if that’s your goal. Nor will it ensure you’re satisfied when the tree hits the curb.

2. Create a plan and shop with a list.

Also good, but same issue as above.

3. Use homemade gifts instead of buying them.

You may spend less as a result, but it’s not a guarantee. Ever figured out how much that homemade chocolate caramel pecan brittle costs to make? And between helping your kids with online learning and juggling your complicated work-life schedule, do you even have the time or the energy?

Even I hopped onto the bandwagon six years ago when I wrote this article with suggestions on how to avoid making a harmful dent in your finances while still having fun at Christmas.

What I’ve learned in the intervening years, though, is that while the above suggestions are good, they focus on the wrong part of the equation. You could do all of the above and still come out the other end feeling unhappy and financially stressed.

The question, then, isn’t “How can I get through Christmas financially intact?”


For better results, ask better questions

When I was a graduate student working on my PhD, my thesis supervisor drilled into me the importance of ensuring that you ask the right questions before heading into a research project or, for that matter, any endeavor.

Poor questions = poor results.

Step back from the whole “getting through Christmas financially intact” issue for a moment and consider the following:

What is your overarching goal for Christmas?

What are you trying to accomplish?

Is it about saving money?

Is it about not incurring more debt?

Or is there more to the story than that?


It’s not about saving money at Christmas

It really isn’t. It’s about the bigger picture.

Taking a moment to ask what you want to get out of the season as a whole will keep you focused on the bigger goal: How do you want to feel on January 1st, when the calendar ticks over into another year?

What’s the end result you want?

That’s the most important question.

If your goal at the moment is to pay off your Visa balance, then not incurring any more debt is only part of the formula. You also have to keep paying down the balance. You can’t hit the pause button to “afford” to buy gifts.

Simply asking, “What’s my budget for Christmas” needs to have “without affecting my debt-repayment schedule” tagged onto the end to remain consistent with your debt elimination goal.


Figure out the destination, then work out the best path

When you start with the end in mind, it’s easier to sort out the best strategy to get there.

Consider this: If you could roll the clock forward to January 1st right now, and you could write the story of your holiday season as though it had already happened, what would your story say?

Maybe you:

  • talk about the great memories you and your family created despite the pandemic-induced separation. You’re still laughing about watching your cousins pull off a TikTok version of Silent Night!
  • relish the deep connections you shared with the most important people in your life.
  • say how you enjoyed the thoughtful, affordable gifts you exchanged with only a few key people. It’s been a tough few months and you all agreed to be more financially prudent this year.
  • mention that you’re proud of yourself for focusing on experiences rather than things, which leaves you in really good financial shape heading into the new year.
  • point out how you kept up your automated savings to your Emergency Fund throughout the season. Imagine that – saving money during Christmas!
  • paid off your credit card bill early because you could – the preset amount was set aside, ready to go for the payment for the first time ever.
  • feel proud that you and your family agreed to double down on donations to those in need rather than buy more stuff this year. Your closets are already stuffed to the gills.
  • decided to focus on self-care this year, given how hard the last nine months have been. You took more downtime than usual to read your favorite books, sleep in, make snowmen with the kids, go hiking in the woods, eat pancakes for dinner, and stare into the fireplace while enjoying your favorite wine.

These are just examples. The point is, the next few weeks are up to you to create. They form a part of your story and you hold the pen.


Your story/destination starts with your core values

If you really want to get to the other side of Christmas in great shape, both financially and personally, tune in to your core values.

Any decision that stems from your values will not lead you to overspend, then face a mountain of stress when the bills comes due in January.

Your list of core values will ensure that you spend time with the people who matter most, doing things you value, and using your money in ways that fulfill you.

All the while, you remain on track to accomplish your most important goals.

How would it feel if you could say that about Christmas 2020?

Once you have the essentials mapped out, then you pull out the usual questions about budget and how much to spend in total, per person, or however you like.

Give it a try and see how it changes your results this season. Start with you and your core values. That’s the center from which all other decisions flow.

When you try this, pop back in here and tell me what changed for you. While I don’t know the details, I can tell you it will feel qualitatively different. I can’t wait to hear your story.


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